Written by Jane Johnson
Many people experience back pain when sitting but are relatively pain free when standing or moving around. This article covers the typical presentation of back pain which comes on when sitting, the likely causes, as well as tips for how to prevent and treat this type of back pain.
What is a typical presentation of someone who gets back pain when sitting?
Many of us have experienced back pain when sitting. Usually, this is after we’ve been sitting for several hours, concentrating on work or after watching a particularly long film or play, whether at home or in a theatre. Back pain is common in students and other whose work or hobby involves sitting at a desk, people who do large amounts of driving, people who spend hours at a computer gaming, as well as anyone who remains seated for prolonged periods of time, as might occur following a lower limb injury or during a long commute by train or plane.
Back pain when sitting might be felt in the low back, upper back or both. Pain typically starts as a ‘niggle’ and is not particularly distracting. However, over weeks and months, pain can become so bad that it affects daily activities, and it is not usually until we reach this point that we seek help.
This is the typical progression of back pain when sitting:
What causes back pain when sitting?
There are different types of back pain and the cause of all of these is not known. Assuming a person is relatively well and has not suffered trauma to the back, back pain which comes on when sitting but not when standing and moving about is most likely caused by the retention of a static posture, irrespective of what that posture is. This is because sitting requires muscular effort, often in the form of isometric contraction, and prolonged isometric contraction causes pain. This type of back pain is sometimes referred to as postural strain.
No one would attempt to hold a house brick in an outstretched arm for a prolonged period of time, yet we often sit for hours on end, expecting the muscles of our back to support our sitting posture. Is it any wonder that they start to fatigue and become painful?
Sitting also compresses tissues of the spine and again, this may be one of the causes of back pain when seated for prolonged periods.
There are specific exercises that will help alleviate pain in each of these parts of the back, but in all cases, movement of the back is key to overcoming symptoms.
How to treat low back pain when sitting
Best of all is to get up move before pain comes on, rather than trying to shake off the pain once it is established. For example, if pain comes on after sitting for 60 minutes, then advice would be to get up every 45-50 minutes.
Moving the spine when sitting is not as effective at reducing symptoms as getting up and moving around.
How to prevent or reduce upper back pain when sitting
Movements of the head, neck and shoulders help alleviate tension in the trapezius muscle. This muscle is in the upper back. So movement of the head, neck and shoulders tends to ease pain arising from trapezius.
As with treatment of low back pain from sitting, it is better to introduce movements of the head, neck and shoulders, and to change position of the upper back, before symptoms come up, rather than trying to shake them off once they are established.
Finally, the longer a person has been experiencing back pain from sitting, the longer it takes to resolve. This is because muscle that are required to support us when sitting become progressively fatigued and so stop functioning efficiently. Once way to ease both upper or lower back pain from sitting is with massage. This can be especially helpful as an adjunct to movement and stretching in cases where back pain has been established for several months.