Got back pain? Listen to your mother and stand up straight.
Betsy Mamtsis, 27, has had back and shoulder aches on and off since she was 16. Doctors couldn’t pinpoint what caused her pain, but physical therapy helped. Recently, when her back pain returned, her therapist focused on the Huntingdon Valley woman’s posture.
“She said that my posture keeps my shoulders hunched over in a forward position, rather than straight up,” said Mamtsis, whose job as a pharmacist for an insurance company keeps her looking down at her computer all day. Add to that the hours she spends gazing down at her phone, texting. “From the moment I wake up until the moment I go to bed is screen time.”
Her therapist concentrated on strengthening and stretching exercises, and manipulating the muscles around her shoulders. “She also told me to be mindful of sitting up straight and having my shoulders pushed back more when I’m at the computer,” said Mamtsis, who is now almost pain free.
The American Chiropractic Association estimates that 80 percent of Americans will experience back pain at some time, and often poor posture contributes to the problem.
Technology, including computers, smartphones, iPads and video games, and jobs that keep many of us glued to our seats are often the culprits in problems from neck and back aches to nerve pain, arthritis, headaches, and more.
More people are developing such pain at younger ages, said Paula Scarborough, physical therapist with NovaCare in Richboro, who has been practicing for 19 years. “It used to be that you would notice more of the postural issues in older people but I’ve seen a trend where younger people, even teenagers, come in with neck, back and shoulder pain, related to spending a lot of time sitting at desks and computers hunched over with bad posture.”
Hunching over for hours means tighter muscles across the front of your body because you’re rarely stretching them. At the same time, muscles in your back get weaker because you aren’t calling upon them to keep you upright.
“Then, when you try to do a functional activity in an upright position, your tightened and weakened muscles can’t respond to those activities,” Scarborough said.
Why do we do it? Perhaps because it’s easier.
“It’s our nature not to engage our core muscles and to slump,” said Jeremy Simon, division chief at the Rothman Institute’s department of physical medicine and rehabilitation. “Evolutionarily, we’re not meant to sit at desks or stand in one position looking at phones for a long period of time. Slouching forward puts significant amounts of pressure on your lumbar discs and, over time, can cause back problems.”
Tech neck or text neck — which develops from constantly looking down at a screen or phone, causes dangerous amounts of pressure. “Fifteen degrees of neck inflection puts up to 27 pounds on your discs and 60 degrees — when you are really looking down at your phone — can put up to 60 pounds of pressure on your neck, causing headaches and disc herniations,” said Simon.
The first step to changing a bad habit is to become aware of it. Whatever you’re looking at on that screen is probably so distracting, you have no idea how you are sitting or standing. So try setting a timer or putting a note above your computer reminding you to straighten up your spine.
Hold your head in a neutral position, looking straight ahead, not down. You may have to adjust your work space to achieve this position.
Stand up about every half-hour, and move around so you aren’t spending so much time sitting in one position.
“Make sure you’re in a good chair with a good lumbar support,” Scarborough said. Similarly, if you drive a lot, be sure to have good back support — “something that’s cuing you to get your chest up and shoulder blades squeezed together.”
While texting, either look down with your eyes as opposed to bending your head down or hold the phone up in front of your face. Adjustable sit-to-stand desks allow you to alternate between sitting and standing, promoting good posture and taking stress off your body. “Sitting for long periods of time will aggravate disc problems in the back,” said Simon.
It's never too late to improve your posture, Scarborough said. But the earlier you start, the better your chances of avoiding long-term problems, because the effects of your habits can build over time.
“If you put yourself in a bad position for a long period of time, you will end up having degenerative changes related to that position,” she said. “Your joints will wear differently, so some of your more chronic and debilitating conditions, like degenerative disc disease and arthritis of the spine, can be reduced if you just watch your posture early on.”
Mathew Voulgarakis, 76, learned that the hard way. He recently developed back pain that made it hard to lie down to sleep, walk up or down steps, and lift anything. His most recent postural problems have involved spending a lot of time in a car, and exercising too vigorously. But the 36 years he spent as a pharmacist, often hunched over a computer filling prescriptions, likely set him on a course toward pain, he said.
“Even though I was very athletic and physical, the tendency to bend over was putting pain on my whole spinal area,” the Newtown resident said. “My pain was shooting down into my back because I wasn’t standing straight.”
An avid painter, Voulgarakis now uses longer brushes “so I do not have to hunch over too much as I paint,” he said. “This is a game changer, as most of my paintings are done in one long sitting that, in the past, resulted in a lot of back pain.”
Tips for better posture and a better back
Keep your back straight and aligned, and avoid arching your neck downward for long periods of time.
If you must sit for long periods, take breaks to get up and walk around. Try an adjustable desk so you can work standing up.
When you lift anything heavy, make your legs, not your back, do the work.
Do core-strengthening exercises such as planks to help support your spine. Don’t know how? Consult a physical therapist or certified trainer.
Watch your weight. Being overweight adds stress to the spine, raising your risk for herniated discs.