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Highlights | A pain in the … back

  • Low back pain is one of the most common causes of disability and missed work world-wide.
  • If you sit regularly, make your setup ergonomic and take frequent breaks to move around.
  • If you stand regularly, try not to stand in the exact same static position for too long.
  • If you lift heavy things regularly, bend at your knees rather than your waist to pick things up.
  • Managing back pain through lifestyle changes is possible, but if you’re in pain every day, talk with your doctor.

Low back pain is one of the most common causes of disability and missed work worldwide. And work-related ergonomic issues — such as workstations that aren’t set up for spine health — are a contributor. It’s also often preventable.

So, what are some of the best ways to manage back pain at work and in general? We posed this question to spine health expert Joseph Ihm, MD, a physical medicine, rehabilitation and sports medicine doctor who specializes in non-surgical treatments. He is also a former personal trainer and has tips for preventing back pain no matter what type of job you have.

Managing back pain if you sit all day

Having an ergonomic, spine-supporting desk setup is key. This might mean a standing desk, a sit-stand desk that allows you to switch between sitting and standing while working, or a shelf that raises your monitor so you won’t have to slouch over to look at it.

Maintaining optimal posture while sitting is important, too. To sit right, align your ears with your shoulders and your shoulders with your hips. Your back should be straight but not tense; the position shouldn’t be so rigid it’s uncomfortable.

Take breaks throughout the day to stand up and move around a little. You could try taking a call while standing or going for a quick walk around the block during your break.

“There’s no real frequency that works best; just getting movement throughout the day for more than a minute is beneficial,” Ihm says.

Managing back pain if you stand all day

One key thing to focus on if you stand a lot during the day is not standing in the exact same position for too long. Staying in a static position for a long time can contribute to pain (and stiffness).

You don’t necessarily have to walk around, though that’s always a good idea. You could also try shifting on your feet, stretching, bending your knees a little — any small movement that puts your body in a different position than the one it’s been in.

Managing back pain if you do manual labor

If you lift heavy things throughout the day, make sure you aren’t repeatedly bending over at the waist while lifting heavy objects, Ihm says. This can put extra strain on your body and contribute to back pain.

Instead, use your core muscles to help you lift. Face the thing you need to pick up, bend at your knees and lift the object as you rise.

Back pain prevention tips that benefit everyone

Your overall health and the way you live will greatly impact your back pain, too, and can help (or hinder) any treatments you attempt.

In general, having weak muscles, a chronic medical condition, being overweight or obese or eating a diet that isn’t nutritious, can all contribute to a higher risk of back pain.

Ihm doesn’t want this information to shame anyone, though; it’s understandable that self-care gets neglected if you’re busy or dealing with other stressors or major responsibilities. However, even small improvements in general health can positively affect your pain.

For example, Ihm recommends trying to get at least 5,000 steps a day separate from any exercise routines you do because walking (and movement in general) can significantly help. If you can’t get those 5,000 steps in all at once, break them up into several short walks throughout the day.

“I don’t have a big office, but sometimes if I don’t have much time for a walk, I walk a figure-eight pattern in my office just to get some movement in,” Ihm says. “You could also walk the stairs or walk up and down a hallway.”

Doing a gentle back bend can help relieve back pain in the moment, while doing planks or side planks as a daily exercise can help build core strength that protects your back.

Most importantly, if you’re taking steps (pun intended) to improve your pain and nothing is working, make sure you talk with your doctor.

“If you do have daily symptoms, you will want to meet with a doctor to discuss management strategies that are tailored specifically to you,” says Ihm.