The pain in my lower back was making it nearly impossible to work. No matter how much I tried to concentrate on my posture, the pain persisted.
As a reporter for a healthcare publication, I am basically glued to my desk chair all day. Every hour or so I’d get up and lay on the newsroom floor, hoping the flat posture would bring me some relief. These regular interruptions were hindering my productivity at work and were also beginning to prompt some expressly displeased glances from my editor. (Pro tip: laying on the floor at work does not make you look very good). And worse, the pain wouldn’t go away.
Then I found out standing desks were a thing. I asked my boss if I could get one, and she said yes. And then, instead of sitting in front of my computer screen all day, writhing in pain and unable to focus, I was standing!
Around the same time, a study was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine that found being sedentary for long periods of time, like, from 8 am to 5 pm, for example, can seriously erode your health and even increase your risk for chronic diseases and early death. I even wrote about it at the time for aSweatLife, complete with recommendations for other office dwellers to invest in a stand-up desk as a means of avoiding the chair.
Despite my excitement over my very nifty new height-adjustable piece of office furniture (that’s right, I can raise my desk to stand and lower it to sit whenever I please), my lower back pain didn’t subside substantially. It got a little better, definitely, but the throbbing discomfort remained.
To make matters worse, subsequent analysis of studies on standing desks found that any health benefits attained from standing during the workday instead of sitting are marginal, if they exist at all.
My standing desk failed me, and I had the research and personal experience to prove it.
So now what? I still had to do something to fix my old-lady back.
I did some reading and conducted some experiments (with myself as guinea pig). Here’s what I found.
1. Don’t head straight to the pharmacy.
Being in pain is not fun, and it’s even less fun when you’re trying to work. Regardless, try to avoid the urge to medicate. In mid-February, the American College of Physicians published updated guidelines that recommend the first line of treatment for back pain should not come in the form of a pill. The nationwide epidemic of opioid addiction, which often starts with prescriptions for narcotic painkillers, spurred this change. The new guidelines even say physicians should avoid prescribing other common back pain remedies, such as muscle relaxants or anti-inflammatories.
“We need to look at therapies that are nonpharmacological first,” Dr. Nitin Damle, president of the board of regents for the ACP, told The New York Times. The guidelines now urge patients to try alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, massage therapy, meditation, tai chi and exercise.
2. Do engage in regular physical activity.
Sometimes back pain makes you want to do nothing but lay down. But in my experience, too much rest can actually make the pain worse. Unless your pain is the result of an injury or nerve issues, exercise can be an effective pain reliever. This may seem counterintuitive, but there is a scientific reason this is so.
Strenuous exercise can briefly dull acute pain because as muscles begin to ache during a workout, the brain triggers the release of endorphins – natural opiates – as well as other chemicals, The New York Times reported in 2014. This effect, called exercise-induced hypoalgesia, typically starts during the episode of exercise and can last for about a half hour afterward. Researchers also believe that exercising regularly can actually increase the body’s tolerance for pain and discomfort over time. Practically speaking, the more you work out, the more resilient to pain you can become (though just to clarify, this effect tapers off eventually; working out all the time will probably not eliminate discomfort altogether).
Another caveat: having proper form while working out is highly important. Whether running, weight lifting, practicing yoga or anything else, form is critical to strengthening your muscles and avoiding injury.
3. Get an ergonomic back support for your desk chair.
Because even when you think you have good posture most of the time, you probably don’t. If you’re like me, you probably find yourself hunched over your keyboard, squinting mere inches away from the computer screen at least 10 times a day – despite your best intentions to sit up straight. An ergonomic back support connects to the back of your chair, fills in the natural curve of your spine and supports good posture.
Have you experienced chronic low back pain and what has worked for you to manage it?