Are you a “desk jockey” who spends far too much time at your desk? What toll does excessive sitting and computer work take on the body? What can desk jockeys do as preventative measures and how can they reverse existing pain problems such as neck and back tension? Salonpas® interviewed doctors and wellness experts on ways to fix an aching back and neck.
What kind of toll does an 8-to-10 hour desk job take on one’s body? “When we think of work taking a toll on the body, we often think heavy labor, which involves plenty of lifting, bending, twisting and activity,” says Dr. Rick Burg, a minimally invasive spine surgeon with OrthoTexas Orthopedics. “However, there are many stresses that come from a desk job. Aches and pains from de-conditioning and disuse are often present in the typical ‘desk jockey.’ Stiffness and pain, and other musculoskeletal complaints are often exacerbated by extended sitting and general inactivity. Back pain can worsen significantly with sedentary work. Symptoms can result from overall stresses as well as poor posture and a poorly set up workstation.”
Preventative Measures for Desk Jockeys
There are preventative measures that “desk jockeys” can take. “’Desk jockeys’ should be encouraged to stand up whenever possible to encourage hip extension (i.e., pushing the hips and pelvis forward so that these structures sit underneath the spine) and spine extension (i.e., pulling the spine upright so it balances correctly on top of the hips and legs),” says Justin Price, the creator of The BioMechanics Method. “Desk jockeys can also do self-massage and stretching exercises during the day (and at the beginning and end of each day) to help combat the ill effects of prolonged sitting.”
“With a sedentary job, several precautionary measures may be taken to avoid worsening musculoskeletal pain,” says Dr. Burg. “These include frequent breaks with stretching, walking and general movement. It may be helpful to find a time to exercise during the day, such as over lunch time if possible. A generalized cardiovascular fitness program is recommended at least several times per week. Adequate hydration throughout the day will also help muscular and cognitive function, and a healthy diet is essential.”
“Consider making ergonomic adjustments related to the computer screen placement, seating and tasks,” says Dr. Nathan Wei, founder of the Arthritis Treatment Center.
“Try a Lumbar Roll,” recommends Nicholas Peppes, PT, OCS, MDT, Lead Physical Therapist for Atlantic Sports Health. “Roll up a bath towel into a tight roll. It should be about the diameter of the circle that forms if you put your thumbs and middle fingers together like you were making a circle. It should be a tight roll. Take some tape or a rubber band and wrap it around it so it stays round. Place it behind your back at your beltline when sitting and push yourself all the way back to the chair. This will maintain the arch in your lower back as you sit limiting the pressure in the discs somewhat. It is also something that one can use in their car during their commute.”
Reversing Pain Problems
Are existing pain problems like neck and back tension reversible? “Understanding potential causes of pain could lead to important changes to reverse or minimize neck and back tension,” says Dr. Burg. “However, most work-related symptoms tend to be associated with stress and posture. Of course, there may also be underlying musculoskeletal issues such as disc degeneration, herniation’s, pinched nerves, spinal instability and/or other treatable conditions.”
“Exercising/stretching is the most effective way to alleviate the tightness and ache of sitting for too long,” says Peppes. “As each person is different and there are various causes for neck and back pain it is best to seek out the assistance of a physician, physical therapist or personal trainer before starting any exercises.”
Price believes that “regular corrective exercise strategies can help reverse the musculoskeletal damage done by prolonged sitting.” Some recommended corrective exercises from Justin Price include the following exercises to help the alleviate shoulder, back and neck pain”
Thernacane On Back of Neck
Using a theracane, apply steady pressure to any sore spots you feel on the back of your neck from the top of your shoulders all the way up to the base of your skull. Perform for 3 – 5 minutes every day.
Tennis Ball Around Shoulder Blade
Lay on the floor with your knees bent and your head resting on a pillow. Pull one arm across your chest and place a tennis ball under the shoulder blade of that arm. Find a sore spot and hold to the release tension. Move the ball gently to another spot and so on. Hold for 20-30 seconds on each sore spot. Perform at least once per day. Note: Do not roll around vigorously when performing this exercise.
The “Why” Stretch
Stand or sit and take your arms out to your side and slightly behind you. Rotate your palms upward. Squeeze the shoulder muscles in the middle of your back to help pull your shoulder blades and arms back. Do not shrug. Hold this position for 10 -15 seconds and do two to three repetitions once per day.
Sitting at a computer for prolonged periods also causes tightness to the front of the hips. The following two exercises are recommended to help bring blood supply to this area and promote extension of the hips helping reduce hip and lower back pain.
Tennis Ball on Front of Hips
Place a tennis ball on the front of your body and lie over it at hip/upper leg level. Find a sore spot on the front of your hips/lower abdominals and hold your bodyweight on it for a few seconds to help your muscles release. Move your upper body to roll the ball to different sore spots on the upper leg and lower abdominals. Do each side for 1 – 2 minutes at least once per day.
Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
Stretching the hip flexors in this kneeling position is a great way to help encourage the hips to move forward under the spine so that your lower back does not
have to overcompensate by arching excessively to hold the torso upright when you go to stand up after sitting. Kneel with one leg in front of the other. Try to tuck your hips under until you feel the glutes of your kneeling leg contract. Keep the torso upright without arching your lower back excessively. Hold for 30 seconds each side. Do once per day.
Importance of Breaks
“The body generally does not like to be in any one position for any extended length of time,” says Dr. John Stavrakos, a physical medicine and rehab physician at Texas Health Resources. “Getting up at least once an hour and doing some gentle stretching (neck and shoulder rolls, leaning forward to stretch the back, passively stretching the wrists with the free hand, etc.) breaks up tension patterns and helps prevent soft tissue adhesions that can lead to so-called ‘trigger points’ (areas of tenderness over muscles, ligaments and tendons that persist).”
What role does ergonomically correct furniture play in reducing or eliminating pain? “These chairs and furniture are great to begin with, but as you sit in them more and more they become more harmful than good as they cause the body to become weak,” says physical therapist, Patrick Lerouge, founder of Evolve Restorative Therapy.
Can sitting up straight like your mother always said reduce pain? “In my clinic, I teach my clients that posture is an illusion because there is no one position that is good for you,” says Lerouge. “It’s all about knowing and understanding where your body is physically and conditioning it to live in a structured way. The core needs to work properly with the hips in alignment, allowing feet and shoulders to position itself in the right place for the best movement it can do.”
Price believes good seated posture is important for reducing pains but that “sitting for prolonged periods (even with perfect posture) is not ideal or healthy for long-term health of the musculoskeletal system.”
“Tai Chi can be extremely helpful for repetitive motion injuries and for gentle conditioning without the trade-off of excess impact on the body,” says Dr. Stavrokos. “Yoga and Pilates can also have significant benefits. Learning some basic stretches and acupressure points (one book I found helpful was “Acupressure’s Potent Points” by Michael Reed Gach) can go a long way towards nipping injuries in the bud before they become serious and chronic. Finally, seeing a good Physical or Occupational Therapist to get an evaluation of your musculoskeletal issues and have them work them out, then prescribe you a home exercise program and work on your workspace ergonomics can be invaluable.”
“Some people find regular chiropractic treatments to be effective in reducing or limiting back and neck pain,” says Peppes. “Some patients use the Internet and Google for self-diagnosis and treatment,” says Dr. Burg. “However, people who suffer from pain should ultimately understand their condition and potential causes of the pain. Although alternative therapies may often provide symptomatic relief, certain conditions should be evaluated and potentially treated by a doctor. We have seen several occasions where patients will seek alternative therapies and subsequently miss an important diagnosis.”
“It is highly recommended that a musculoskeletal or postural assessment is performed as part of any exercise program or therapy designed to help mitigate the effects of prolonged sitting,” says Price. “As such, the best alternative therapy for ‘desk jockeys’ is corrective exercise which incorporates assessment procedures and therapeutic exercises to help lessen the effects of the musculoskeletal imbalances that are caused by prolonged sitting.”
Price recommends finding a qualified corrective exercise specialist at The BioMechanics Method. Peppes recommends The McKenzie Institute as a good site for the average person to gain knowledge on how our bodies work and the various stressors we put upon them.