Of all the areas of our bodies, our back is the most susceptible to injury. “Eighty-five percent of people, at any given time, are gonna have some degree of back issue every year,” says Nick Rolnick, DPT, better known as “The Human Performance Mechanic.”
Dr. Rolnick’s job is to help people experience the joy of pain-free movement. He says the majority of his clients are desk workers, many of whom have back issues. But regardless of what you do for a living, what causes back pain is almost always the same: repetitive movements, specifically, spending too much time in flexion (rounded forward).
“It’s not that flexion or activities involving flexion, like bending over, are necessarily bad,” Dr. Rolnick says. “It’s just that we’re, as a society, very flexion-based, so much of what we do involves our backs bending forward.”
To a degree, this is totally normal. “Our spines are designed to bend, twist, and extend,” Dr. Rolnick says. We just happen to spend way more time in flexion, in which our back muscles are stretching, and not enough time in extension (back bending), in which our muscles are contracting. This creates muscular imbalances and weaknesses.
“When we are constantly putting our spine in any one position, that could increase sensitivity to that position and begin to cause us issues,” Dr. Rolnick says. “It just so happens that because our society involves a lot of sitting—which is flexion—our back and the structures surrounding our back that get tensioned in flexion get more loading than the structures that tension during extension.”
3 everyday habits that may lead to back pain
1. Not using some sort of lower back support while sitting
“The majority of us have desk jobs, so we’re constantly in this sitting position, which is what we call end-range flexion,” Dr. Rolnick says. “This means that our lower back is doing the same type of movement as if we are reaching over to touch our toes.”
Creating a little more extension in this position, in the form of lower back support, is key. In particular, Dr. Rolnick likes and recommends the Mackenzie Lumbar Roll ($25). But, he says, you need to make sure you’re using it correctly in order for it to be effective.
“Where your back curves, that’s where you’re gonna be positioning that,” he says. To find the right placement, scoot your glutes all the way to the back of the chair and then position the roller in the small of your back. “That is gonna provide a little bit more support for your lower back and prevent you from going into that end range.”
2. Staying in any one position for too long
Varying your positions throughout the day is the most important thing you can do for your back (and body in general). Just like that notification on your smartwatch tells you, Dr. Rolnick says you should get up every hour for at least one to two minutes if you’re sitting down.
Even if you’re standing, you still want to mix things up. “For example, vacuuming; that could just be, all right, we’re gonna vacuum for five minutes in whatever position we want and then we’re just gonna spend another minute—doesn’t have to be a lot—varying up the position in a little bit more extension.”
3. Poor workplace arrangement
Regardless of what you do for a living, it’s important the take note of anywhere in your environment that’s causing you to be in flexion unnecessarily. If you work on a computer, the second most important thing after proper lower-back support is the position of your screen. “The good rule of thumb I tell my patients is like two inches below eye level,” Dr. Rolnick says. Your keyboard should also be close enough that you don’t have to lean forward to reach it.
The real culprit when it comes to back pain or injuries is repetitive movements, so take stock of anything you do over and over again on the job and see if there are ways to break up the routine, especially if those movement patterns require a lot of bending or flexing at the hips or knees, as well as twisting—especially while moving heavy loads. You can apply this same logic at home as well. (Two areas to keep in mind are cleaning and doing chores like unloading the dishwasher.)
Why your daily habits aren’t really what causes back pain
Dr. Rolnick stresses that it’s not the activities that require flexion, like sitting or vacuuming, themselves that cause back pain or injuries. “In essence, we don’t get injured by bending over,” he says. Rather, he explains, “When we’re constantly in this flex position, certain tissues are getting stressed or compressed, and they accumulate microtraumas over time.”
Your body naturally heals or repairs these microtears on its own while you’re sleeping, but the more time you spend in any one position, the more microtraumas you’re creating in those muscles, and if you’re not giving yourself adequate time to recover, you’re at an increased risk for injury.
Once you surpass your body’s ability to manage the stress you’re putting it under, that’s when injuries occur, according to Dr. Rolnick. “It is important that we accommodate for this in our everyday life and try to get more movement variability,” he says. “This can be anything, really. I was told this once a long time ago and it is so true: ‘Our best posture is our next posture.’”
It’s also vital to get good sleep, manage your stress, eat nutritious foods, and exercise, since all of those contribute to your overall health and ability to recover properly. “Back pain is viewed more and more like a common cold, like 90 percent-plus of the time, it’s going to get better by itself in six weeks,” Dr. Rolnick says. If it doesn’t, or you’re in acute pain, consider seeing a specialist who can help get your back back on track.
This Pilates workout to stretch and strengthen your back is a great place to start: