The Sitting Spine

As sad as it is, summer is coming to an end. The end of summer means a return to all things “normal.” Back to work, back to school, and back to sitting. It seems that we are moving more towards a “sitting society.” With computers, tablets, smartphones, and, yes, smart watches, we seem to be ever more glued to our chairs and screens.
Epidemiological research has shown that 80% of the population will suffer from some sort of back pain in their lifetime; be it a single occurrence, or more commonly, multiple recurrences. As chiropractors, most of our day is spent try to help people with back pain. It is the single most common thing we see in our offices. The interesting thing about it is that back pain often comes on gradually over time, rather than from a single traumatic event. One of the contributing factors can be from prolonged periods of sitting. This article is meant to be a brief insight into the negative effects that sitting can have on our spine. With this information, hopefully you can become more aware of the various stresses your back goes through in the day.
Before we get into the details, lets just recap the basic spine anatomy. The spine is made up of 3 regions: the cervical region (neck), the thoracic region (mid-back), and the lumbar region (low back). The spine bones are called vertebrae, and in between each vertebrae are discs. Supporting the spine are long columns of muscles called the erector spinae. Additional support is provided by ligaments that attach vertebrae together. These are the structures that can get affected by sitting.

How can sitting be bad for your spine health? Sitting is not hard to do, so it doesn’t seem too physically hard on the body, right? Well, in actual fact that’s quite far from the truth. Biomechanic researchers (these are people who study forces on the body) have found that those supporting spine structures (i.e., muscles, ligaments, and discs) undergo physical change with sitting for long periods of time. This physical change has been called “creep.”

When you sit for too long, the muscles, ligaments, and discs actually stretch out and become lengthened. In this position, they can’t offer the necessary core support that the spine needs. When you then stand up, these tissues still remained lengthened for a period of time before their natural elastic properties kick in and start to pull the tissues back to their normal length. By sitting for long periods of time, the back actually becomes weaker and can’t tolerate the normal day-to-day stresses that it faces. It’s no wonder that over time, the tissues will start to break down and cause problems. Now just think of the poor person who has to sit all day! Their spine is “creeped” out!

So the best thing you can do to help your back is try not to sit for too long. Take microbreaks every 10 minutes or so by standing up and stretching out. Try to keep the supporting structures of your back the normal length and not too stretched out. I’m sure most of you have heard the saying, “Sit up straight!” If it only was so easy. Sitting in any position for too long is still harmful to the back. Ultimately, the moral of the story is to not let your back get “creeped” out. Think of your spine health and hopefully things will be easier.

Dr. Stefan Bell, BSc, DC Optimum Wellness Centres Macleod and Heritage