Does Sitting Cause Low Back Pain?

Sitting And Low Back Pain

Sitting is the new smoking. – everyone

You’ve heard it. You’ve read it. Somewhere in your brain is the meme that sitting is the new smoking.

Yes, sitting for long periods without moving is unhealthy, mostly from a metabolic point of view, but does sitting cause low back pain?

In reality, like all things related to pain, it’s complex, and as a result, the research seems to be mixed, which is a far cry from what you’ll read in most health articles posted online, in newspapers and magazines.

What Does The Popular Media Say?

It’s really common for articles in the popular media, both online and offline, to say that sitting causes low back pain. (1,2)

Most say that the incidence of low back pain has increased because of increased sitting time or via mal-adaptive processes (like muscle shortening) as a consequence of sitting.

You will read about how sitting shortens hip flexors and hamstrings, about how sitting compresses the spine and the discs and about how sitting weakens “the core”.

Because these mechanisms sound plausible, and because they are repeated so often, they are gradually accepted as fact, without much further questioning.

Unfortunately, what makes sense in theory doesn’t always pan out to work in the real world, which is why we use the scientific method to try and determine cause and effect.

This is important for two reasons:

  1. If we determine that sitting causes or doesn’t cause low back pain, then we can act on this information accordingly.
  2. If we determine a causal relationship between sitting and low back pain, we can then look at why this might be happening, in order to better treat it.

What Does The Research Say?

When we look at the research around sitting and low back pain, the results are mixed.

One study (3) took a group in 1993 and followed up at 5 year intervals until 2012. They looked at mental health, metabolic health and musculoskeletal health. They found no association with occupational sitting and low back pain.

Another study (4) I looked at objectively measured sitting time as a risk factor for low back pain. This is important, because most studies rely on self-reported data, which is typically inaccurate. The authors found that total sitting time (most studies just measure occupational sitting time) was associated with low back pain intensity, when other factors were controlled for. This means that the more these people sat, the more intense low back pain they experienced.

The third study (5) I looked at wasn’t a study, it was a review. A review is when researchers look at all the studies on a certain topic that meet certain criteria, and then compile their results.

Aside: a meta-review is when researchers review all the reviews on a topic to get an idea of what “works”. This is regarded as the best form of research evidence, because it is more robust and has more statistical power (is more likely to be correct).

In this review the authors reached the following conclusions:

Although occupational physical activities are suspected of causing LBP, findings from the eight SR reports did not support this hypothesis. This may be related to insufficient or poor quality scientific literature, as well as the difficulty of establishing causation of LBP. These population-level findings do not preclude the possibility that individuals may attribute their LBP to specific occupational physical activities.

So as you can see, from my small sample, one showed a link, another showed no link and the review found no link, but also acknowledged potential issues as to why this is so.

So, Does Sitting Cause Low Back Pain?

As you can see, the results were not conclusive. Even if increased sitting time is associated with low back pain, it doesn’t mean it causes low back pain.

This is because, pain is emergent, not dependent.

An emergent property is a property which a collection or complex system has, but which the individual members do not have. A failure to realize that a property is emergent, or supervenient, leads to the fallacy of division.

What this means, is that pain arises based on many factors, that are unpredictable, so to try and isolate one variable, like sitting, as the cause, is impossible.

No one thing causes pain.

A “More” Plausible Explanation?

If we look at why somebody might experience pain after sitting, we have to ask:

Was it the sitting, or something the sitting did?

Do people who experience low back pain from sitting also experience low back pain from other activities?

What about positions that replicate sitting, but aren’t sitting?

If they do, then what do these activities have in common?

Finally, is there ways they can sit that don’t cause them pain?

Most of the time, we will find that sitting is not the sole cause of low back pain, and when it is apparently so, it’s likely that there are still other factors at play.

One way to explain why we get pain in certain positions, is to understand the sensitivity of peripheral nerves.

When we occupy any position, particularly when pressure on the body is involved (sitting, lying etc), there is a compression of body tissues taking place, including the peripheral nerves.

When we apply pressure to peripheral nerves, they deform.

This deformation causes altered neural blood flow – rabbit models show a reduction of up to 70% of their blood flow when a strain of only 8.8% is applied.(6)

This could feasibly be a driver of nociception (bearing in mind that pain is produced by the brain, there are no “pain signals”) which could result in a pain experience.

So instead of thinking that sitting causes low back pain, it is probably better to look at the function of your body as to why you don’t have the capacity to sit for extended periods, and address those issues.

Conclusions

Just because sitting doesn’t necessarily cause low back pain, doesn’t make it harmless. Sitting has many pronounced negative effects on our metabolic functions, and movement has many pronounced benefits, including reduced incidences of pain (7).

Additionally, if you understand that no one thing causes pain, you will be in a much better position to deal with pain when it happens.

 

This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.

This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.

 



 

References

(1) Heal your lower back pain with these 5 yoga poses

(2) Proper sitting

(3) Occupation sitting and cardiometabolic, mental and musculoskeletal health

(4) Sitting time (measured) and low back pain

(5) Occupational physical activity and low back pain

(6) Structure and biomechanics of nerves

(7) Physical activity and chronic pain (in mice)

Exercise For Low Back Pain

Fit girl lift weights at fitness gym center. Deadlift workout.

Any article about exercise for pain needs to cover one important fact before it goes on:

The body will tend towards self-correction/health/resolution, if, and that’s a big if, the right conditions are present.

The biggest challenge facing an osteopath, or any other therapist, is finding, or more likely, stumbling upon, the right conditions for the individual seeking help.

Whilst there are general guidelines to abide by, every one of us has a unique set of experiences, thus different stories, explanations, treatment techniques and movements are required to facilitate a recovery; not to mention all the environmental factors that come into play.

This article intends to discuss the general principles that should underpin your actions when exercising for/with low back pain.

Where Most Back Pain Exercise Programs “Go Wrong”

Most back pain exercises or exercise programs are based on the notion that pain is the result of specific factors, and that these factors can be specifically identified and then specifically addressed.

There are a variety of factors that can contribute to low back pain, but aside from a history of previous episodes of low back pain, nothing drastically stands out as being identifiable. (1)

As an aside, this perhaps points the finger at us, therapists and rehab professionals, who are not doing a good enough job in the first place (on a population, not individual level).

It is also highly important for sufferers of low back pain to understand, as many people decide to cease treatment/rehab as soon as their pain is gone, rather than concluding the full course of treatment and restoring “lost” function.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to specifically assess and as a result, address them with targeted exercises.

So knowing that specific factors may be hard to identify and treat, it seems more important to build resilience with a complete mobility, strength and conditioning program.

Take home point number 1: exercise programs for low back pain should not attempt to be specific, but rather improve all physical qualities.

There Are No ‘Good’ And ‘Bad’ Exercises

Another misconception surrounding exercise for low back pain is the concept of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ exercises.

Generally, if you are reading a fitness article, the concept of “neutral spine” is mentioned quite a lot. Lifting should always take place with a neutral spine, regardless.

If you are reading a rehab article, limits might be imposed on external loading, as in, any lifting above 10 kg is bad, and must be avoided.

Or you might read a medical article which mentions you should simply avoid things that hurt.

All of these comments have a place, and are neither right or wrong without any context to define them.

A ‘good’ exercise is one that you can do safely, is suitable for your current ability, is able to be gradually progressed and fits in with your needs and wants (aka your goals).

Take home point number 2: blanket statements and absolutes do more harm than good. There are times when a moderate approach doesn’t work and more extreme action needs to be taken, but it is rarely either or. Exercise selection is based on your needs and wants, not an arbitrary definition of good and bad.

Self-Limiting Movements

This is a concept that was popularised by American physical therapist Gray Cook, in his book Movement.

Self limiting movements/exercises are those that have an inbuilt “coaching mechanism”, meaning doing them forces you to increase your awareness with movement, and often times with these type of movements you can only perform them correctly, or not at all.

Utilising self limiting movements as part of an exercise program for low back pain allows you to safely challenge your body and brain, leading to improvements, without the risk of overdoing it.

There are many different examples of self-limiting exercises. The specifics are not as important as being able to move with increased awareness and a low risk. This is a big focus of our exercise programming for low back pain, especially in the early stages.

Take home point number 3: a good exercise program will provide both a challenge and the option to “fail safely” – thus reducing the fear associated with facing more demanding movement challenges.

Our Approach To Programming

There is no one way to program exercise for low back pain. As long as the programming is underpinned by sound principles, and not “technique based”, then it should be sufficient.

We strive for more than sufficient, we strive for optimal.

As such, over the years our approach to exercise programming for low back pain has been refined to what it currently is. Chances are, in another 5 years it will be further refined, but the vast majority will be consistent, as it is all principle based.

First, we consider the body as a whole. We don’t only do “low back” or “core” exercises, but rather we devise a total body program. This is the underpinning principle of osteopathy, and is also applicable to exercise programming.

Second, we ensure that of physical qualities are developed in the right sequence.

If we start with osteopathic manual treatment in the consultation room, we then progress to mobility and flexibility exercises.

These will usually start on the ground, as this provides the most stable environment, thus is the least threatening.

Considering pain occurs when there is a perception of threat by the brain (if you haven’t already, have a read of Pain Basics), this is one of the best ways to regain movement and avoid inefficient compensation patterns taking over.

From there you are looking to build “motor control” – this is simply the ability to control movement well.

We can call this stability, but that implies static positions and discounts the movement component. This is actually achieved simultaneously with improving movement/mobility/flexibility.

We can consider mobility as “end range strength”, and we are simply progressively challenging you so that both qualities improve.

Once you have achieved adequate movement and control (adequate is based on your individual needs), if you want and/or need, we would add load. This might be in the form of external resistance, increased leverage challenge or even changing the tempo.

Only when you are moving competently under load do we add a conditioning component – that is, more volume of work. This is the challenge of fatigue to your new found movement abilities, and if done correctly, is the difference between breaking down when the going gets tough and being able to withstand (almost) anything.

Take home point number 4: whole body, principle based programming that utilises appropriate methods of progression yield the best long term outcomes (based on clinical experience and research) (2) for sufferers of low back pain.

Conclusions

There is a well worn quote:

Methods are many, principles are few. Methods always change but principles never do.

This served as inspiration for this post – there is no point showing you how to do an exercise with no context as to whether it is appropriate for you or not.

Rather, it is important to have an understanding of why you are doing something – even if you only care about the “what”.

This understanding means you will not chop and change based on the latest article in your newsfeed.

It means you will take the time to get things right, knowing that making progress is all the matters, even if it is “slow”.

It also means that you have a better chance at a good outcome and are less likely to become a statistic of low back pain recurrence.

Reducing the article to four sentences, we would end up with something like this:

  1. Do something you enjoy doing, that has intrinsic reward – there are no “good” or “bad” exercises.
  2. Ensure you take a “whole body” approach to exercise. Don’t simply focus on “low back exercises”.
  3. Start slowly, progress gradually.
  4. Vary the stimulus over time, but not too much or too often (or you won’t elicit adaptations).

 

This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.

This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.

 



 

References

(1) Incidence and risk factors for low back pain: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24462537

(2) Resistance training and low back pain in active males: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20093971