THE BLOG

The Painful Truth About Office Back Pain

04/15/2014 11:50 am ET | Updated Jun 15, 2014

Let's face it. Work can be a pain. Between deadlines, abrasive coworkers and budget cuts, the full-time office life often threatens to squelch even the cheeriest of employees. Now new research is proving what many of us have suspected for years -- work can be a literal pain, too. Back pain in the workplace is a common occurrence, and yet few workers (and even fewer employers) know what to do to combat it beyond the occasional five-minute stretch at the water cooler.

It's easy to make light of something we are usually able to just mentally push past, but the truth of the matter is, desk life is accelerating damage and even death to our bodies, and our work culture must be revamped in order for many to get out alive.

While it may sound dramatic, both professional statistics and the everyday experience of many office workers currently prove that back pain is an incredibly common problem in the office, and that it can often lead to more dire consequences.

How We Are Murdering Our Backs

Our bodies are not designed for a sedentary lifestyle, and yet in the face of such a technologically driven society, we often feel there is no choice but to spend generous portions of the day sitting in one spot. The average healthy person's back will take a beating from this low-energy lifestyle, leading to increased pain, stiffness and long-term problems. In other words, we prefer electronics over our physical well-being, and this needs to stop.

Our bodies are naturally designed to be active, and sedentary positions cause back muscles to tense up from supporting the rest of the body in a single stance for too long. The spine is also adversely affected and takes much longer to heal. We are unable to recover from much of this damage once it occurs, and women in particular will incur unsightly varicose veins that result in the same circulatory blockages that can cause the back pain.

Despite many companies promoting ergonomic working conditions, countless employees continue to practice poor posture and typing at their desk. This adds additional strain to the back, leading to long-term (and oftentimes permanent) damage to the lower back's ligaments. Outside of sitting all day at the office, some of us additionally sit in heavy traffic during our daily commute and also sit while eating lunch. This only adds to the stress on our back.

Finally, sitting contributes to obesity, which of course leads to undue strain on the back. Our joints and muscles are not designed to endure extra weight as the years go by, and as our bodies are aging and growing more frail, we are demanding they take on more work. It's a process that is detrimental to the whole of our systems, but often starts in the back. So, if you want to kill yourself while making a buck, consider continuing in your work routine. However if you're looking for a solution, read on.

If you already consider yourself to be particularly active, other things can cause back pain in the workplace, including excessive force upon the back or repetitive movements for multiple hours.

Stopping the Downward Spiral

For those who work in an office environment full time, there are steps you can take to minimize back pain and injury. It's simple to suggest you make a fuss at work until your employer abolishes chairs and replaces all standard work stations with standing or treadmill desks, but in all honesty, that is quite a task and often far from realistic. If you are not fortunate enough to work for a company that keeps employee health at the top of the priority list, there are still things you can do to save your back and potentially your life.

  • Stay active. This is the most important thing you can do to prevent and/or relieve back pain. If you are able to, take frequent breaks at work and walk/jog during your lunch hour. Once you're home, overcome end-of-day fatigue by hitting the gym or walking the dog. In other words, avoid the TV and Internet.
  • Speak to your employer about minimal adjustments you can make to reduce chronic pain. This could include getting a chair specifically designed to alleviate back pain or an adjusted schedule to allow for stretches and an active breather from your cubicle.
  • Don't call in sick and stay in bed if you're feeling mild to moderate pain -- the more you can continue to engage in active life and work to refine your daily desk routine, the better.
  • When pain is exceptionally bad, call a doctor. While rare, back pain can be a sign of something more serious. And, as mentioned prior, if your desk job is causing damage to your back, it could be causing damage to other parts of the body as well.

Employers Can Be Life Savers

While still far from the norm, employers are beginning to step up and recognize the issue of back pain and other mild injuries in the workplace. Some organizations who focus on the rights of the worker have begun to view employers as the enemy. This has led to many improvements in working conditions across the country, varying by profession. If you are an employer looking to preserve the health and wellness of your employees, there are some things you can do:

  • Encourage your staff to report symptoms in their early stages. This minimizes serious injury and also presents your company as a positive, caring environment that takes care of issues early.
  • Design your workplace with minimal risks, perhaps including a standing desk option or offering a free or very low cost exercise class at lunchtime.
  • Evaluate your company via a risk assessment and take necessary steps to improve based upon the findings.
  • Arrange for proper coverage during busy seasons so employees are not working excessive overtime or placing undue strain on their bodies.
  • Train employees on proper lifting or any other physical task that is applicable to your place of business.
  • Keep your workplace clean and free of any items that could be a tripping or falling hazard, potentially leading to back injury.

No matter what your position in the corporate world, make sure you are taking steps to protect your health and well-being. We may live in a society where we are expected to stay silent about every day aches and pains, but when it comes to the health of your back, it could quickly affect other parts of the body and turn into a company liability nobody wants to deal with.