Sitting Got You Down?
Why a Desk Job isn’t the Best for Your Body
Do you remember what it felt like to imagine your life as an adult? Sitting at a large mahogany desk in an office with a view, did you have a phone in one hand, giving orders while you signed papers with the other? Now that you have reached adulthood, your desk might be much smaller than you pictured. And your view may be of Sharon in the next cubicle, but your desk job is an important part of your life. What you may not realize is that it is also impacting your health in often unexpected ways.
We sit more than we think
According to a survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, civilian workers spent an average of nearly 40 percent of their workday sitting. While it may not seem like a lot of time spent at a desk, that figure is an average of all non-military jobs the Bureau of Labor and Statistics tracks. Think of the typical waitress who spends 99 percent of her workday standing and walking. Then, consider that the average software developer spends 90 percent of their time sitting at a desk. Chances are, you land somewhere in between those two extremes. Or do you?
One study found that the typical office worker spends six and a half hours per day looking at a screen. That’s around 1,700 hours per year spent staring at a computer or laptop, usually while sitting hunched over a keyboard or slouched in a chair. Considering the average work year is 2,000 hours long, this study suggests that having a desk job means sitting for 85 percent of your workday. Even in a day of ergonomic chairs and keyboards, standing desks and stability balls, that is a lot of time to spend sitting. In fact, if this sounds a little too familiar, perhaps we can guess what your typical day looks like.
If you’re like most Americans who work at a desk, chances are you wake up feeling tired and achy. You wonder how someone can hurt themselves just by sleeping wrong and you make a note to get a new pillow so you’ll stop waking up with a headache and a stiff neck. You pop a few over-the-counter pain relievers with your morning coffee and head to work. Sitting at your desk, you plow through your morning work, only taking a few breaks to scroll through social media or send a text to your spouse.
By lunch, your neck, back, and shoulders are really starting to ache. You pop a few more pain relievers and do a few stretches that don’t really seem to do much. You may even pull out a tennis ball and lean against a wall or borrow your friend’s heating pad in an effort to find some relief.
By the time you get home, your head is pounding, your back and neck are locked up and of course, your family needs you. You try to help with homework, dinner and preparing for tomorrow, but you are in pain and not in the mood for any interaction beyond what needs to be done. In fact, you can’t remember the last time you weren’t worn out by the end of the night. A few more pain relievers before bed and you hope tomorrow will be different, but deep down you know you’re in for more of the same.
Sitting and Pain
All too often we think of back and neck pain as the result of an injury. If you try to deadlift a 50-pound sack of dog food into the back of your car, you won’t be surprised to feel a twinge in your back and pain in your shoulders. But we often don’t realize that injuries are just as common when you don’t move, bend, or lift as they are when you do.
Poor posture is one of the biggest contributors to muscle pain and problems with connective tissue and joints in your back and neck. In fact, sitting slouched over a keyboard or staring at a computer screen can injure your intervertebral discs – the cushions that sit between each of the bones in your spine. When these discs are under pressure, they not only cause pain in your back and neck but also radiating pain, numbness, and tingling in your legs, arms, and head. Even if you think you have great posture, ask yourself these questions.
- Is the top of your computer screen positioned at eye level? Does the screen sit 20 to 28 inches away from your face?
- While sitting in your desk chair, do your feet rest comfortably on the floor?
- Does your monitor sit at a 10 to 20-degree tilt?
- Is your keyboard positioned so that when you type your arms are at a 90-degree angle?
If you answered, “No,” to any of these questions, your working posture may be contributing to your back, neck and shoulder pain as well as any headaches you are experiencing. However, your posture after work hours may also have a hand in how you are feeling. Even though desk workers spend an average of 85 percent of work time sitting at a computer, that is not the end of our sedentary life. A 2008 Vanderbilt University study found that we spend 55 percent of our total waking time (not just our work time) doing sedentary activities like sitting, watching TV, driving a car, or looking at our phones. Even if your posture is adequate at work, ask yourself these questions.
- Do you hold your phone at eye level when you look at it?
- Do you have proper posture in the car?
- Do you watch TV on the couch or in bed?
- When you sit at a computer at home, do you follow the postural guidelines we asked you about before?
If you answered, “No” to any of these questions, your posture in the rest of your life could be contributing to your back and neck pain as well as your headaches.
Sitting & Disease
While neck pain, back pain, and headaches are the most obvious side effects of working at a desk job, spending your day sitting also increases your risk for developing several other diseases.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
You have a median nerve on both forearms that runs through a small passage in your wrist called the carpal tunnel. Anytime this nerve becomes inflamed or squeezed, or whenever the carpal tunnel collapses from injury, you run the risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome. Most often, this condition is caused by repetitive hand movements like typing, cutting or sewing, but your anatomy and other health problems can contribute to it.
Usually, carpal tunnel syndrome happens gradually, beginning with numbness or tingling in your fingers and thumbs and eventually leading to persistent pain in your hands, wrists, and forearms, and weakness. Ergonomic keyboards, mouses, and chairs can offer some relief or even prevent carpal tunnel syndrome from developing, but spending your day at a desk increases the likelihood of developing this disorder.
Scientists have begun referring to sitting at a desk as “sitting disease“. Not a diagnosable illness, sitting disease refers to the health risks that often accompany a desk job. A study published in 2015 found that desk jobs and the resulting sedentary lifestyles are associated with higher incidences of heart disease. What’s even more surprising is that getting the recommended daily allowance of exercise doesn’t protect you from the effects of a sedentary desk job on your heart. A 2014 study published in the American Heart Association Journal found that people who were moderately sedentary but physically active for 30 minutes a day had an elevated risk for developing heart disease. As it turns out, spending 30 minutes on the treadmill will not combat the 23 and a half hours you spend sitting or lying down.
It is common knowledge that eating a balanced diet and exercising can help you maintain a healthy weight. However, researchers have found that the average waist circumference of the examined workforce increased by 2 centimeters for every hour beyond 5 that the person was sedentary. For those who work an 8 to 10-hour day in front of a computer, a possible 6 to 10-centimeter increase around the waist is disconcerting.
Sitting’s Emotional Toll
A 2013 study found that sitting on the job for more than 6 hours a day was linked to higher incidences of anxiety and depression, with women experiencing more symptoms than men. What’s telling is that, while sitting on its own has shown no causal link to mental health problems, sitting at work has. It’s unclear whether this is due to the isolation someone experiences when they are sitting at a desk at work, or if it is due to a lack of physical activity.
Hope is Not Lost!
Even though it may seem like your desk job is killing you, you don’t have to quit and become a lumberjack to eliminate your pain and reclaim your health. There are several tools that can help you minimize your time at a desk and find relief from your symptoms.
Try a Standing Desk
While some people opt for a standing desk in an effort to burn extra calories throughout the day, others have found using a standing desk has significantly improved their back and neck pain. This is due, in part, to the adjustability most standing desks offer. If you have the ability to move your desk to the proper height so you do not have to slouch to see your computer screen, you are less likely to stress the muscles and joints in your back and neck. Even if you do not have the endurance to stand for long periods of time while you work, having the option to adjust your workspace to accommodate your height and position can go a long way to relieving back and neck pain.
Take Frequent Breaks
As tempting as it is to spend your work break scrolling through your favorite celebrity’s Instagram feed, taking frequent breaks to stand, walk, then sit using proper posture can reduce the stress your desk job puts on your body. Set a timer for every hour to remind you to check your posture and make any necessary adjustments. Even if you are on a roll and don’t want to stop working to walk around, this simple reminder will keep you sitting and working with the proper form.
Learn How to Stretch
The internet is a fantastic resource, but if you are using pictures to show you how to stretch, you are likely doing the exercises wrong. Chiropractors, physical therapists, and athletic trainers can show you how to stretch your back and neck properly, avoid injury and find relief any time of day.
Taking over-the-counter pain relievers will only mask the pain you experience without treating its root cause. Chiropractic care is designed to treat pain and discomfort by improving mobility in the joints of your body. Your brain and spinal cord make up your central nervous system from which every other nerve emanates. When the bones in your spine (vertebrae) are misaligned, the nerves send pain signals to your brain, signaling a problem. We often think the solution is to take a few pain relievers and ignore the problem, but the misalignment remains. Unless the vertebrae are brought back into alignment, the nerve will continue to misfire. Chiropractic care realigns the bones in your spine and allows your nerves to communicate with the rest of your body the way they should. Not only do you experience less back and neck pain and fewer headaches, you feel happier, more energetic, and ready to tackle whatever life throws at you.
Having a desk job doesn’t mean you are doomed to a life of pain and poor health.
Let CORE Chiropractic help you get back on track with personalized chiropractic care, stretching recommendations and a custom treatment plan. Call today for your consultation, or schedule an appointment.