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If you find yourself sitting a lot, you should put these strategies to work to save your back.

“Sit up straight!” We’ve all probably heard that a million times…and that might not even be hyperbole in this instance.

So many times someone comes to me for help with their back pain and they solemnly “confess” that they don’t sit or stand with good posture, thinking that’s the entire reason for their pain.

Sitting up straight has been drilled into our culture, but if we want to slow the roll on the back pain issue in our society, we need some new culture.

Intervertebral discs and back pain

Our spine is made up of many parts, but let’s focus on the vertebrae and the discs. The vertebrae are the thick bones of our spine, and the discs sit between each vertebra. The main role of the discs: to absorb force. They are our spinal cushions.

Sustained compressive load can contribute to disc degeneration and decreased disc height (1). Degeneration of our discs and decreased disc height can be connected with experiencing back pain (2).

This leads us to a potential formula: sustained compressive load can be connected with experiencing back pain.

Sustained compressive loads

We endure sustained compressive load through our spine all day. If we’re standing, gravity is pushing down and the ground is pushing up, and our spine is in the middle trying to push back in both directions.

If we have a barbell on our shoulders, or we’re holding dumbbells over our head, or we’re running on a trail, we’re enduring incredible amounts of compressive load through our spine.

In sitting, gravity is still pushing down on our spine and our chair is pushing up, again leading to compression. Unfortunately, the compressive forces on our spine in sitting are greater than they are in standing.

Sitting up straight is almost the worst thing you can do for your spine. You put your force absorbing discs through a lot of work. The worst sitting posture you can assume, leading to the most force through your discs, is actually to lean forward like so:

So where is the hope against such a daunting, seemingly omnipresent force against our spine? Should we never sit, stand, or exercise ever again? The answer lies in the miracle of spinal unloading.

Spinal unloading strategies

Spinal unloading can simply be referred to as getting out of gravity. Getting your spine out of the unending sustained compressive forces of your day.

There is an abundance of spinal unloading strategies, and in our clinic, we pair up the most appropriate strategies to the individual’s own pain experience. We’ll dig into just a few here, and your spine will be so much happier if you incorporate them into your day.

If you’ve read any of my previous articles, you probably know the first one. Lay down for ten minutes. It can be flat on your back or on your side. That’s it. 

Just this simple activity can lead to an increase of up to 6mm of your spinal height (3). That might sound small, but it pays huge dividends for the health of your back, especially your discs (and when you’re my height, you’ll take every millimeter you can get!).

Spinal unloading while sitting

What if you work all day and you don’t have time, or you don’t feel comfortable, to lay down right in the middle of your office? 

Turns out you can unload in sitting too. This might go against everything your school teachers told you, so prepare yourself. 

To unload your spine in sitting you want to scoot your bottom forward to the end of the chair, rest your feet flat on the floor, and then recline yourself back until your mid/upper back connects with the back of your chair. You can add in a pad or small pillow under your low back if desired, but the effect is the same.

If you have an office chair with a back that reclines really far back, that works too. 

Yes, it’s the lazy sitting position, but it turns out it’s also really effective to unload your spine. Similar to lying down, this sitting position can lead to a 5mm increase in spinal height within just ten minutes (4). That equals huge relief for your discs!

Don’t worry, your back is robust

All of this information is not meant to scare you from sitting or to cause you undue stress because you’ve been sitting straighter than a 2×4 your whole life. Your back is robust. It can take a lot of force and be just fine. 

I simply want to give you a few strategies that I have seen to be very effective in helping individuals with back pain recover during their day to day. 

Even if you already have decreased disc height and disc degeneration as we discussed in the beginning, you might not have pain, and if you do have pain, you can be rid of it.

The best place to start your recovery is by implementing spinal unloading strategies. If you currently have a perfectly healthy spine, then you should still implement these strategies to keep it healthy and young. 

Start unloading and keep staying active!