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5 ways to combat back pain from sitting at your desk

Sophie Xie / Sep 14, 2016

Attention all office workers! Today on the VITL Life Blog, Sophie Xie, Doctor of Physical Therapy, tells us her top 5 ways to combat back pain caused by sitting at your desk all day long.


You glance at the time again and it has only been 15 minutes since you took your break to straighten your back. This time, you lean your body the left, hoping this may relieve the tension in your lower back for a while before having to shift your posture again.

Does this sound like your typical 3pm in the office, battling the creeping lower back pain?

Lower back pain is a common condition among people who work primarily sitting down. Over the years, some brilliant products such as lumbar support pillows, exercise balls, and ergonomic adjustable tables and chairs have been introduced and beloved by this working population. However, the mounting hours of sitting may still be beating simple attempts for relief.

So, are you ready for some refreshing tips from a professional pain healer?

I am a physical therapist, and these are some of the most rewarding techniques I teach to my patients to bust sitting pains out their life.

Pop your spine anytime you want

Why endure the stiffness? Most people suffering from sore and stiff back experience pressure in the middle section of their back, or in the thoracic spine. This is due to the rounded sitting posture we are in for hours at a time.

You can unlock the stuck spine segments by visiting a chiropractor, or you can learn to pop your own spine one an athletic foam roll in less a minute. A foam roll has a broad range of fantastic usage to relieve muscle tightness and improve core strength. My favorite reason to own one is to pop my spine whenever I like.

Fast relief: Get on the floor, roll your back on the foam roll. Pop, pop, pop! And behold the indescribable sensation of release and lightness in your back. Here is a great article with video showing you how to do this technique properly. Long term strategy: Perform posture exercises to prevent spine kyphosis.

Do these two stretches to save your day and your back!

The ultimate evil of office work is the result of muscle imbalance. If you are experiencing nagging and recurring lower back pain due to prolonged sitting, you are highly likely to have significant weakness in your abdominal and gluteal muscles, as well as tight and cranky hip flexor and hamstring muscles.

Instead of utilizing your entire lunch hour to perform the whole yoga routine (which is, in fact, a very, very good fitness option), you can perform two crucial stretches and find fast pain relief - the hip flexor stretch and hamstring stretch.

Fast relief: Learn how to stretch hip flexor muscles and hamstring muscles properly here. Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds. No bouncing stretches! Repeat 2-3 times throughout your work day.

Long term strategy: Actively strengthen your core muscles. Some popular fitness trends that target core building are Pilates, yoga or kickboxing. Show your body some love by getting deep tissue massage every month to allow the tight and shortened muscles treated and released properly.

Secrets worn underneath

Depends on the nature of your position and work environment, you may or may not be able to set up electrical heating pad, electrical massager, or having wires hanging out of your clothes!

No fear! You can still indulge in some pain relief heaven discreetly while keeping your professional appearance (even during a meeting with your boss and client).

For those people prefer the elegant approach, I highly recommend sports taping for constant muscle release. Sports’ taping was once used exclusively by professional athletes to treat injuries and enhance performance. Nowadays, you can buy these colorful tapes in most drug stores to deal with a large variety of body aches and pains.

Well-known brands that specialize in these making sports tapes, such as Kinesio Tex, KT tape, or Rock tape, also provide lots of videos and articles teaching people how to self-tape correctly for each and different conditions. The way that these tapes work is to enhance or release different muscle groups through tactile stimulation through your skin. They are noninvasive, comfortable and largely effective.

For those who needs some extra kicks in the treatment to get through the tough days, there are the remote wireless TENS units available over the counter. Be warned that you should consult your doctor before starting self-treat with TENS unit.

For those who are new to the world of pain management, TENS stand for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. This technology has been used widely to provide temporarily pain relief for physical conditions by gently stimulating large spasmodic muscles group with electrode pads to relax the tissues and interrupt pain neuropathway.

These newly designed wireless TENS units are slick and user-friendly. You can place it over the painful segment of your lower back, and they will send funny tingling sensations to your muscles, all controlled by a small remote or mobile phone app. These gadgets are perfect for those recovering from recent back strain or disc herniation.

Long term consideration: Whether you choose the traditional icy-hot patch, sports taping or wireless TENS units, you should be aware that all these treatments are temporary solutions to ease your nagging symptoms. Chronically relying on these treatments may result in skin irritation, decreasing in effectiveness and mounting costs. As soon as your symptoms are under control, you should return to stretching, strengthening and being active.

Hook for the knots

Some people are built with strong, massive and tight muscles. If you are one of them, you should understand the frustration of muscle knots. Muscle knots, also known as trigger points, are sore and painful spots in the large muscle groups that radiate pain to the surrounding area. The physiology of these muscle knots is under constant debate. However, it is widely known that deep, consistent and targeted pressure is highly effect in stopping the pain.

Unless you are double jointed, you will have trouble reaching these muscle knots effectively on your back. That's why you keep tennis balls in your office draw. When in pain, you can lie down on the floor, placing the tennis ball against the flaring knot and let your body weight to supply the pressure for pain relief.

I know what you are thinking. Getting on the floor is too much hassle, too awkward and attention drawing. No problem. You can also try the famous Thera Cane. Thera Cane is an odd looking tool with strategically placed tips and handles, enabling you to reach any trigger points in the body with a twist of your wrist.

The Thera Cane was created by the American inventor Dan Hennesy, who developed the Thera Cane to relieve his own discomfort resulting from neck surgery and a herniated disc in his back. There are other similar products on the market. The harder the material, the more control over the pressure you will have. When not in use, you can hang the cane in your office and brag about it as a piece of contemporary artwork...

More reason to keep gulping those fluids

Are you drinking enough water? Have you heard a nauseating amount of "health tips" to drink more water? I will share my reason for drinking countless gallons of water during one period of my past.

I was in school to become a doctor of physical therapy, studying non-stop. I developed an enormous appetite for drinking green tea for two reasons. The pretty reason was that our body becomes dehydrated very fast in constantly are-conditioned building. Dehydration can quickly lead to muscle cramping and spasm, impaired ability to fight inflammation process and slowed healing. Together, these reactions are the recipe for chronic physical pain.

The less glamorous reason for the increased water intake is the forced physical and mental break to get up and walking all the way the bathroom on the other side of the building many times in an hour.

Do you regularly ignore your phone's reminder to stretch and move around? Deep down, you may already understand the importance of frequent physical movement and change in posture to the health of our spine. However, we are easily too focused on the work at hand. Too many people spend their entire morning in one position and spend their entire afternoon wiggling their body around unable to get comfortable.

Keep moving to be healthy, even it means to trick your body into a biological necessity. Take many micro breaks, on the way back, do some stretches and grab some water.