Many people think that low back pain comes only from active injuries or misuse, like hard falls or lifting improperly. But sometimes just sitting down can be just as harmful to your back. Are you beating up on your back without knowing it?
You might be causing yourself problems if you sit too long at one time. How? A silent villain called ligament creep is the culprit. In between each vertebra in your spine is a disc, which cushions the spinal bones. When you stand, those discs, especially the lower back discs, are compressed. The surprise is, when you sit, the pressure on your lower back discs doubles.
When you combine sitting pressure with the slight stretchiness of discs, you get a slow, deforming change of shape in the disc. For up to one hour’s worth of sitting, the change will bounce back in about two minutes of non-sitting (standing or lying).
The problem with sitting longer than one hour is something called “creep”. Creep happens when the disc stretches and deforms beyond its ability to bounce back right away. This can cause short-term stiffness, discomfort and instability in the spine. Doing this repeatedly, or sitting very long hours without a break, can actually cause damage to the disc.
A nuclear power facility in Canada once required single guards on 12 hour shifts to sit the entire shift, monitoring cameras, without rising except for one break. They were hiring new gaurds on a regular basis, and had very high workers’ compensation costs. They hired a biomechanics expert to find out how to better screen prospective employees for underlying back problems.
The problem was simple. And it was not a hiring problem. Sitting so long was tearing up the guards spinal discs! The problem was easy to solve. Want to avoid creep in your discs? Just stand up or lie down for two minutes of every hour. This lets your discs bounce back, avoiding unwanted subtle injury. This is back-saving knowledge for office workers, couch potatoes and anyone else who sits for long hours.
What about long car, bus or airline trips where you don’t want to or can’t stop every hour? Passengers can easily take the load off their spine by putting their hands on the seat or armrests on either side of their hips, and then push up to lift your bottom off the seat for 30 seconds or so. Do this frequently through a long trip and your back will thank you!