Does Sitting at Work Lead to Low Back Pain?
Anyone working long hours at a desk job has probably wondered if sitting so much will eventually lead to back pain. A few studies have suggested that might be the case. But a recent review of all studies available makes it clear that working in a sitting position for long periods of time is not a risk factor for low back pain.
Researchers from Canada scoured the literature of published studies from around the world on this topic. There were articles published from the Netherlands, Iran, Nigeria, Sweden, the USA, Finland, Greece, Belgium, England, China, Germany, and Denmark. Of the 2766 studies initially identified as possible sources of good information, only five were high-quality and therefore included in this review.
It makes sense that there might be some risk with long hours of sitting. This position puts pressure on the pubic bones, increases downward compression through the discs, and increases spinal muscle activity. And many workers seem to experience low back pain that reduces work hours and productivity.
But the conclusion of those five studies was consistent: there was no link between occupational sitting and low back pain -- not in nurses, not in construction workers, or anyone else for that matter. In fact, if anything, there was some evidence that sitting protects the back. That makes sense when sitting is compared with occupations that involve activities such as lifting, carrying, twisting, and bending.
There may be other more significant risk factors such as previous back injury, body mass index, age, muscle weakness, or lifestyle (smoking, inactivity during off hours, sex: male versus female). Further study is needed to identify any links between these factors and occupational sitting with episodes of back pain.
Anyone engaged in long periods of sitting is routinely advised to stand up and stretch periodically, shift weight in the chair at least once every hour, and engage in physical activity and exercise during the off-hours. But patient education of this type isn't really based on evidence that doing these things reduces episodes of back pain or offers preventive measures against back pain. However, until more is known about the risks of occupational-related back pain, workers who sit for prolonged periods of time are still advised to follow these steps to assure good spinal and overall health.
Darren M. Roffey, PhD, et al. Causal Assessment of Occupational Sitting and Low Back Pain: Results of a Systematic Review. In The Spine Journal. March 2010. Vol. 10. No. 3. Pp. 252-261.