How did I hurt my back?

Well, this is one of the great questions, for which everybody would like an answer.  I’ve written about a number of things in this space, but unfortunately, the source of everyone’s back pain will not be one of them.  What I would like to impart to readers is a very common risk factor for low back injuries.

I’d suggest sitting down before you read on, but that would just add to your risk… that’s right, sitting for long periods of time is a risk factor for low back pain and injury.

Careful When Sitting too Prolonged

Photo courtesy of Saxon

New Study on Fatigued Muscles

A recent study undertaken at the State University of New York at Buffalo determined that “the degraded force generating capacity of the fatigued muscles can be a significant risk factor for low back pain1.  The research showed that prolonged sitting causes creep (changing length) in muscles primarily responsible for posture and maintaining stability in the spine.  When the same muscles were recruited for lifting or carrying following sitting, they generated less force.  In other words, muscles that have stretched from prolonged sitting are weaker, less able to stabilize and move the spine, and more prone to injury.

Examples of how this phenomenon affects us include:

  • taking packages out of the trunk of the car after a long drive,
  • getting the newspaper off the ground after sleeping side lying,
  • transporting luggage following an airline flight,
  • or bending to lift anything at work after awhile at the desk.

The key in all of these situations is that the back muscles are experiencing an increased demanded for force at a time when the muscle is least capable.  This is when injury can easily occur in these back muscles.

Simple Recommendations to Avoid Back Pain

For similar reasons, I frequently recommend that patients avoid twisting the torso while bending and lifting.  These actions put considerable strain on spinal muscles, because tissues are being asked to stabilize and move the spine simultaneously, increasing the risk of overloading the muscles.  Sitting for a long period before doing the same work only increases the risk of injury further.  So remember to take frequent breaks from prolonged sitting and give your muscles time to adjust when asking your back to do work following sitting.

The risks of warming the couch maybe even greater yet.  A newly published article described how prolonged sitting, even when adults participate in physical activity, is a factor for reduced lifespan2.  I will examine this topic in a later post.

  1. Shin G, D’Souza C, Liu YH.  Creep and fatigue development in the low back in static flexion.  2009 Aug 1;34(17):1873-8. []
  2. Owen N, Healy GN, Matthews CE, Dunstan DW.  Too Much Sitting: The Population Health Science of Sedentary Behavior.  Exerc Sport Sci Rev.  2010 July;38(3):105-13. []

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