Back pain has become more common in the computer age than it was in the agricultural age. This may appear puzzling, because we are no longer working the land, we are now working the hand. Or at least both hands, at a keyboard. So how does the modern worker contract back pain while literally lifting nothing more than a finger at a time? Let’s take a look…
The human body was designed (and evolved) for movement. Hunting, gathering, hacking and hewing. The daily activities of work in the old days kept our core muscles toned, and kept our legs in top shape to support us. Most back pains were muscular in nature, and would heal with a bit of rest.
The daily activities of modern work, by contrast, keep our core muscles slackened,, and our legs folded underneath us like a card-table. As a consequence, we are now seeing a significant rise in the number of cases of back pain associated with desk jobs. Even in young people.
To be sure, we can hurt our backs with too much lifting or twisting, such as clearing a heavy snowfall from your driveway. But most of the pains we now see are from too little movement, and need a whole new strategy.
Take a look at the ergonomics of your work area. If, like most people and you are sitting at a desk, then make sure the height of your computer screen is high enough so your eyes can look at just below the horizon when you are sitting upright. Then, make sure your hands are at the right altitude so you can type without bending your wrists. In other words, don’t use your laptop for more than short time periods. If you have the keyboard down at a comfortable lap-level, then you have to look sharply down with your head. If your head and neck are comfortable with a higher screen placement, then your wrists are bent acutely to let your fingers reach the keys. I usually rig up a wireless keyboard along with a separate screen, and run both via my laptop.
Take a look at the time. We need to move, and a timer can be a huge help. Every fifteen minutes, set a timer (or a feature on your computer) to alert you. Give your arms a shake, roll your shoulders, and, if you can, try to stand and pace or twist for a few moments. At the very least, try to flex and extend your legs while you are still at your desk. Otherwise the computer can be a time-hog, and hours can pass without you moving any major muscles at all.
Take a look at the chair. On most chairs, you can fall asleep. That’s because you need no muscle tone to stay sitting. That’s why the legs get weaker, and the core muscles around the spine and trunk get more atrophic. Try a Pilates ball instead of a chair. First get the right size, so when you are sitting you will be able to bend your knees to 90 degrees and still have your thighs parallel to the ground. Take your first try with the ball almost against the corner, to protect you if you roll away. Build up your tolerance, starting with five or ten minutes an hour. Once you get the hang of it, you will be impressed that you cannot slouch or even doze. Muscles are used from the toes to the knees, the inner and outer thighs, the hip flexors, abdominals, and the remainder of the core muscles. Your head will naturally be in line, like a Dressage rider.
Now that we have invented the modern workplace, we need to be inventive in our strategies. If you have pains in your back, or if you simply want to prevent them from starting, take a look at your ergonomics and your time. You can be “on the ball” in more than one sense of the word!