Back pain commenced the day we humans decided to spend our lives sitting down and stop using our back muscles. A fixed posture such as bending forwards while sitting stresses the spinal joints, discs and ligaments and as time passes, the body reacts to this stress resulting in loss of joint mobility and degenerative changes in the joints and intervertebral discs.
In people who sit hunched in front of computer and TV screens for long hours, the muscles on either side of the spine weaken due to disuse. Disuse leads to wasting of muscle tissues. Disuse and wasting of the back muscles is also seen in the case of taxi and truck drivers and desk jobbers like accountants and clerks, call centre and data entry employees, check out staff in supermarkets, accountants, software engineers and just about everyone in the IT industry. WOW!! That’s half or more of the entire working human population!
We have only ourselves to blame, since the most common causes for back pain are:
Slouching in chairs
Sitting puts almost twice the pressure on intervertebral discs as standing. Since the muscles and ligaments are the main components holding up the vertebrae, the loss of power means that the weight bearing responsibility is shifted to the bony parts of the spinal column. This poses a tremendous strain on the spine and is responsible for disc problems such as disc degeneration and disc prolapse.
When you sit in any chair, a number of important postural control muscles are inactivated, while others are being asked to work overtime. This leads to the following muscle problems:
- Shortening of the hamstring muscles
- Overworking of the Erector Spinae muscle group
- Overworking of the Iliopsoas muscle
Hamstring Muscle Shortening
When we sit down, the hamstrings are pulled and maintained in that position for as long as we are sitting, which could be hours. Although the hamstring muscles are inactive, they are held at a shortened length. This is a probable cause of tight hamstrings. Tight hamstrings are associated with back pain. The reason is that tight hamstrings stop the hips from flexing during forward bending. This forces the lower back to bend beyond its strong middle range. Rounded shoulders and a hunched (forward curved) back due to shortened hamstrings are typically seen in those who sit for long hours.
Overworking of the erector spinae muscle group
Chair sitting is unique in that the gluteus maximi (buttock muscles) are totally relaxed at the same time as having an upright torso, and they are therefore not able to contribute to extension of the lower back and stabilization as they usually do. It is the erector spinae muscles alone that are holding up the back without the help of the gluteal muscles. Prolonged sitting tires out the erector spinae muscles which give up the struggle to maintain the correct “hollow” in the lumbar spine. This again contributes to the forward curved lower back and a stooping posture when the person stands up.
Iliopsoas Muscle Strain
Assuming you are using a chair whose backrest slopes backwards or is too far behind, your iliopsoas muscles must continuously pull your body forward to stop you falling backward. If you are sitting for a long time, the iliopsoas muscle has to remain contracted for that period of time. That is a sure fire recipe for iliopsoas muscle shortening. Ten to fifteen percent of back pain is due to a tight iliopsoas muscle.
When we sit for a prolonged period, all these muscles are starved of blood supply and oxygen because they are constantly in a state of contraction.When we finally get up, the same muscles are unable to support our backs. Our entire body weight is now supported by the spinal column alone. No wonder we, the so-called modern human race, suffer from backache.
Other self-made mechanical causes of back pain
- Standing badly with rounded shoulders and/ or the pelvis thrust out
- Lifting heavy loads incorrectly
- Sleeping on sagging mattresses
- Being generally unfit and not bothered about regular exercise
- Obesity: Obesity per se can cause back pain due to the weight being carried by the spine and lack of exercise. In addition, once an obese person develops back pain, he/ she is caught in a vicious cycle since he/ she finds it difficult to move and without movement, the ability to burn calories and reduce weight is severely restricted. Hence both weight and pain will increase with time.
- Excerpt from “Say Goodbye to Back Pain” by Dr. V. Ranjan. Available at http://www.amazon.in/Say-Goodbye-Back-Pain-Ranjan-ebook/dp/B004S7BAO6