Ever had an overuse injury? If you have not then consider yourself fortunate. An overuse injury can be every bit as bad, if not worse, than an injury that happens quickly. Overuse injuries occur whenever we use a certain part of our body for an extended period of time or number of repetitions that exceeds a normal range of use. This can occur in either the joints or the muscles of the body. Overuse injuries typically occur in the elbows, knees or back. Once they occur, they can be debilitating and very painful, and may become a chronic condition. The one that I’d like to specifically address is overuse of the lower back, as I do not believe that enough people are really fully aware that this problem exists, at least in America, until they already have the problem. Even though, many millions of Americans and Europeans suffer from this condition and it is estimated that more than 6 of 10 Americans will suffer from it in their lifetime. If I asked you how (if in any way) you are overusing your lower back each day, could you give me a definitive answer? What if I asked you what exactly would occur after a period of years of overuse of the low back?
The sad truth is that where the low back is concerned and overuse, we may or may not even recognize signs of a problem. We may or may not feel anything happening when, in fact, it is happening. The reality is that it is very likely that we will not even notice a thing until it is too late. The problem typically occurs with prolonged sitting each and every day. When we sit, a couple of crucial things are happening. First of all, unless we are constantly moving around a lot in our chair, our spines are not undergoing imbibition. This vital process is the way in which our spines literally absorb nutrients into the intervertebral discs. Imbibition can only occur when we are in motion, specifically motion of the back. The fluid which carries nutrients is literally squeezed in and out of the discs as the vertebrae move around. Without it, our spines will deteriorate over time and the discs of the spinal column begin to become withered and very dry until they lose all of their natural pliability and softness and simply cannot act as adequate support, or impact and shock absorption, any longer. If you examine an ex-ray of someone who has spent many years sitting, perhaps at work, and someone who has been active, the difference can be quite dramatic. In fact, the intervertebral discs of the person who has been sitting so much will literally be quite dark in color and very small and thin. The discs of the active person will be wider, lighter in color and thick. It’s important to keep in mind that when we sit, we are actually placing much more pressure on the vertebral discs than when we walk, lie, or even stand, creating a great deal of compression to these discs over time. To be exact, we exert on the spine twice as much pressure as our own body weight. So, if you were a 150 pound person, you would be placing 300 pounds of pressure on the low back just by the single act of sitting, according to Frederick C. Hatfield, PhD in his book “Fitness, The Complete Guide.”
The second thing that happens is that we place the muscles of the low back, such as the erector spinae muscles, in a stretched position for an extended period of time. Muscles stretched for a proper amount of time is a good thing. But, stretch them hours on end for months or years and you’ve got a recipe for trouble! This weakens both the erector spinae and the muscles responsible for correct posture of the hips and thus predisposes the tissues to injury. This can and will lead to an overuse injury of the low back, resulting in pain and a great deal of time dealing with all the issues that accompany having a “bad back.” Not to mention, rehabilitation time can last for days, weeks and even months depending on the severity of injury and quality of rehab. Once an injury like this occurs, it is likely that it will happen again in the same area of the back. It is quite likely that it will be a recurring problem, perhaps frequent, depending on various factors. We have to ask ourselves the question, “Is all my sitting in a conventional chair really worth the risks?” If we absolutely must sit for such long periods of time, it is wise to invest into an ergonomic seat which does not place the erector spinae into nearly as much of a stretched position and can save us a lifetime of agony… even if we don’t think there is a problem.
Yet, there is even a 3rd common ailment that can arise from being in a stationary position for so long. That problem is called “Static Fixation.” Static Fixation is where two or more of the spinal vertebrae actually stick together and immobilize that portion of the vertebral column. This completely changes the overall biomechanics of the muscles and ligaments of the back and places even more stress on the ligaments and muscles; and, in the area of the back most effected by this part of the spine it creates an incredible amount of stress, dramatically increasing our chances of a severely strained back.
Furthermore, what do most of us do with our time? I can tell you exactly what the majority of people do. They sit all day at work, sit while driving home, sit down for a nice dinner and, because they’ve had such a tiresome day at work, they “take a load off” by sitting in front of the television for the evening, or computer… and you wonder, “Hmmm, what could the problem be? I barely even use my back. How could I have ever strained it?… And then shrug and answer with a complacent, “It must be ‘old age’.” No, it isn’t your age. It’s that you are, in fact, using your back and have been using it for many years, far too much.
So, what can we do? Well, the first thing to realize is that sitting too much will certainly have a negative effect on your body, one way or the other, sooner or later. From there, we can make the decision to cut back on the sitting as much as humanly possible. If you can stand, perhaps while working, that’s a helpful option. Walking is even better. If you can lie down, or even take frequent breaks to lie down for a few minutes, that can also take a little pressure off of the back. The two best positions to lie in are on the side with knees bent a little (If back trouble is already present, using a pillow between the knees is advisable) and on the back, facing up. The side position is great for aligning the spine and relaxing the muscles without sacrificing the natural lordosis curvature position of the spine. Personally, I find that lying on my back is the most comfortable and seems to take the most stress off of my back. Lying on the stomach is usually bad if back problems are already present because it typically causes excessive curvature of the spine which is counter productive and can cause the back to stiffen up and become inflexible or inflamed and painful. A helpful tip is to try lying while watching television. This is also a good time to stretch the muscles and relax them. Stretch regularly or do light yoga type stretches each day. It doesn’t take very long at all and can be a fantastic help to your back, vitality and overall well-being.
Given the information, it is easy to see how important it is to regularly stretch the back and to continually keep the spine moving. Regular stretching and exercise can do a great deal to help in this area! But, if you must sit… again, I do recommend investing in an ergonomic chair and/or petitioning with your boss to buy you one. I’m not sure they would do much in the way of preventing Static Fixation if your adamant about sitting a lot, but they should help with relieving disc compression and they most certainly take a lot of unwanted over-stretching off of the muscles of the back. Above all else, move, move, move!