Sedentarism and its effects on the spine

sedentarism and spine

Sedentarism can cause major spine health problems. Let’s face it, a modern lifestyle is a sedentary one. Most of us work in a seated position, commute in our cars, and sit in front of the TV or a computer screen for entertainment. Many studies show that sitting for less than eight hours a day in small increments doesn’t cause any serious health problems, but unfortunately, our daily schedule can add up to significantly more time spent sitting. Although we usually associate back problems with sports injuries or heavy lifting, a sedentary lifestyle can also have a damaging effect on your spine. 

Prolonged sitting affects your back in many ways. It puts constant pressure on the muscles involved in keeping your position, causing soring and stiffening. In fact, a study conducted by the Cornell University Department of Ergonomics found that the back muscles can be under 90% more pressure when sitting than when standing. Sitting also affects blood flow to the gluteus maximus, which are the buttocks muscles that support the spine. Furthermore, glutes remaining inactive for a long period of time can lead to a condition called anterior pelvic tilt (APT). 

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APT means that your pelvis is tilted forward to an unhealthy degree. This can also weaken the abs, making your belly appear bigger, as well as inhibit your movement during physical activity. APT is almost always associated with lower back pain.   

Sedentarism and the Slouched Position

No matter your sitting position, APT will be a risk, but slouching adds its own list of problems. A curved back puts more strain on your spinal disks, which will weaken over time. Disks can slide out of place, a problem known as spinal disk herniation. When this happens, the disk can hit a nerve, which will produce intense back pain. If the sciatic nerve is pinched, the pain can extend to the thighs.

A slouched position also stretches your ligaments, causing them to weaken. Since ligaments are responsible for holding the spine in position, injury to them can lead to “spinal instability”. This occurs when the intervertebral joints can no longer maintain a normal alignment, and the sufferer will experience difficulties with maintaining normal posture. In and of itself, sitting down is not known to cause this problem, but weaker ligaments are more susceptible to fail under significant stress. 

While working on a computer or reading papers, we often tilt our heads forward. Besides putting increased pressure on our upper spine, often resulting in acute neck pain, this will also cause our shoulders to sag in the familiar “IT professional” posture. 

How to Avoid Back Pain from Sitting to Much?

If you have to sit for prolonged periods of time, maintaining proper posture is paramount. Ideally, the back must be kept straight and the head in line with the upper body. Upper arms should parallel the torso and the buttocks should be pressed against the backrest, with your hamstrings acting as a counter. 

About the author: Article submitted by Marina del Rey Hospital Spine Center, a multidisciplinary center offering comprehensive spine services, from evaluation and diagnosis to surgery and rehabilitation.