Managing Back Pain in the Workplace | AECC Clinical & Rehabilitation Services
quotation mark

Managing Back Pain in the Workplace

Back pain is one of the most common complaints for desk workers. This page provides tips on managing back pain in the workplace, including exercises, posture adjustments, and lifestyle changes to help alleviate discomfort and improve overall health.

Person sat at desk chair holding lower back in pain

On This Page

On this page, you can expect to discover effective strategies for managing back pain at work, learn about ergonomic workspace setups, exercises, and self-help strategies.

Healthcare professional holding x-ray scans up to the light analyzing spines

About Your Back

Your back is remarkably robust, and even though some discomfort in the back is quite common, lasting problems are much rarer. This guide presents some simple home and work-place measures that will reduce the likelihood of back problems, as well as suggesting when a discussion with a regulated healthcare professional is needed.

blue medical sketch of spine highlighting the vertebrae

About Back Pain

Back pain is very common and serves as the primary cause of global disability (WHO, 2023). Back pain often gets better by itself, however it can sometimes benefit from rehabilitation, typically seeing improvement within a few weeks. Occasionally, it may persist for a more extended duration or recur intermittently.

The back is inherently robust and stable. The vertebrae are interconnected by discs, and the entire spine is strengthened both front and back by strong ligaments. Powerful muscles surround the spine providing additional protection. Causing damage to the back is surprisingly difficult.

Despite the widespread occurrence of back pain, most individuals experiencing such discomfort do not have any structural damage to their spine. Pinpointing the exact source of the pain is not always possible.

Here you will find some information on some commonly held beliefs about back pain, and why they can be considered myths

Managing Your Back in the Workplace

Several precautions can be taken in the workplace to improve lower back pain.

Taking Breaks at Work

Firstly, taking breaks at work can reduce people’s lower back pain, without affecting productivity at work. Breaks at work should be active, involves moving around or changing how you are sitting (Waongenngarm et al. 2018). Research indicates that breaks from desk-bound work should be frequent, brief, and involve standing to temporarily alleviate symptoms of low back pain (Sheahan et al. 2016). Significant improvements in low back pain had been found among a desk-workers’ sample performing office-based stretching and motion of back muscles (Russo et al. 2021).

Ergonomic Workplace Setup

For desk workers, finding a right adjustable chair with features that properly support your back might influence low back pain (Channak 2022). Additionally, varying your posture while working has been shown to be effective in office workers that adopted sit-to stand desks (Robertson et al. 2013). When access to sit-to-stand desks is not possible, varying your posture while sitting on any desk chair also prevents the onset of low back pain (Waongenngarm et al. 2021).

demonstration of good example of the ideal posture, however the full page explains that Regular movements and adjustments, as well as regular standing and moving around, are the most important principles of posture.

The image above is commonly seen as a good example of the ideal posture.  It has some ideal principles.  But holding this position for hours a day would become bad posture.  The most important thing with posture is your next posture.  Regular movements and adjustments, as well as regular standing and moving around, are the most important principles of posture.

Whilst you are at the desk, consider these points:

  • Adjust your chair so your feet are flat on the floor and your knees are level with your hips.
  • Keep your computer screen at eye level to avoid straining your neck and keep an upright and neutral posture (Roman-Liu et al., 2020).
  • Try to relax your shoulders and keep your arms and wrists in a comfortable position while typing (Sowah et al., 2018).

These little changes can make a big impact on your comfort at work.  Nothing is as important as regular changing and moving in your posture.

Getting to work

In the BCA survey, driving came out top as the most common method of commuting, with over half of working Brits (55%) using a car to get to and from work.  Whilst there are little evidenced-based recommendations about the right position for driving, the principles of comfort and small adjustments are key.

If you do drive to work, consider how you may get some time to move between driving and starting work to do some movement, such as “park and stride”, or undertaking some simple exercises in the workplace before you start.

Exercises in the Work place

This article from the Royal College of Nursing shows some simple exercises that are easy to undertake in the workplace and can be used to increase your movement in the day

Lifting & Shifting

If you are required to lift and move items, consider the principle of TILE.  (Task, Individual, Load and Environment).  Please follow the principles of your manual handling training.  If you require further information on manual handling please see: manual handling training on e-Learning for Health

Things You Can do Outside of the Workplace for Your Back

Back pain is a common condition, and lifestyle factors are one of the most significant contributing factors.  Activity, or lack of it, is an important factor in back pain.

Activity

The NHS recommends that individuals aged 19 to 64 should engage in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week, along with incorporating 2 strengthening activities. The is crucial as exercise has been proven effective reducing pain and disability.

Walking to work, swimming, beginner yoga videos on YouTube, couch to 5k and equivalents all count towards your weekly goal. Please view NHS better health: ‘get active’ for more advice and information.

Diet

Having a healthy diet has been shown to improve overall health which may have a positive impact on back pain. For further information and advice please see NHS better health: ‘diet advice’.

Different types of diet have been shown to have differing effects on musculoskeletal pain in osteoarthritis.  Whilst there is no evidence of the effect on back pain, having a well-balanced diet is considered an important part of our health.

 

Image that shows the Suggested* impact of a Mediterranean Diet, Fruit, and or Herbs can have on OA-related Outcomes such as physical function and Mobility, Pain & Stiffness, OA progression and Inflammation.

The image above was taken from a publication on Evidence-Based Dietary Practices to Improve Osteoarthritis Symptoms.

Clinician working with man on rehabilitation/exercise using a theraband

When to Seek Further Help

If you are experiencing an episode of back pain, you are not alone! It is estimated that up to 60% of people will have back pain at some point in their lives (NICE, 2020).

For exercises and further information on self-help strategies to manage your back pain, please view MSK dorset: “Back Pain”

When self-management strategies are not helping you can see a Musculoskeletal health practitioner such as a Physiotherapist, Chiropractor or Osteopath.

Expertise is also available from the Clinical & Rehabilitation Services we have here at AECC UC.

Signs you may require further help

  • When your pain has not improved or got worse after 4-6 weeks.
  • Back pain is following a trauma such as a fall from a height or car accident.
  • Recent unexplained weight loss
  • Back pain with associated fever

Cauda Equina Syndrome

A rare but serious back condition, Cauda Equina Syndrome, can lead to permanent damage or disability and will need to be seen by an Emergency Specialist Spinal Team.

Please seek urgent medical advice and attend the Emergency Department if you experience any of the following Cauda Equina Syndrome warning signs:

Cauda Equina Syndrome warning signs
  • Loss of feeling/ pins and needles between inner thighs or genitals
  • Numbness in or around your back passage or buttocks
  • Altered feeling when using toilet paper to wipe yourself
  • Increasing difficulty when you try to urinate
  • Increasing difficulty when you try to stop or control your flow of urine
  • Loss of sensation when you pass urine
  • Leaking urine or recent need to use pads
  • Not knowing when your bladder is either full or empty
  • Inability to stop a bowel movement or leaking
  • Loss of sensation when you pass a bowel movement
  • Change in ability to achieve an erection or ejaculate
  • Loss of sensation in genitals during sexual intercourse

Contributors & References

This information on this page was produced as part of an AECC University College and BEC PCN collaboration. Special thanks go to the students and tutors involved in the production of this information.

All information above can be found in the references below.

Contributors
  • Richard Stanley
  • Jenna Nicholls
  • Lucia Sacchetti
  • Stephen Whitehouse
  • Christopher Gregory
  • Solveig Johnsen
  • Joe Trippett-Jones
  • Filippo Perini
  • Matthew Garfath
References
  • Channak, S., Klinsophon, T., & Janwantanakul, P. (2022). The effects of chair intervention on lower back pain, discomfort and trunk muscle activation in office workers: a systematic review. International journal of occupational safety and ergonomics : JOSE, 28(3), 1722–1731. https://doi.org/10.1080/10803548.2021.1928379
  • NICE (2020) Low back pain and sciatica in over 16s: assessment and management. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Available from: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng59
  • Robertson MM, Cirello VM, Garabet AM. (2013) Office ergonomics training and a sit-stand workstation: Effects on musculoskeletal and visual symptoms and performance of office workers. Applied Ergonomics. 44:73–85. doi: 10.1016/j.apergo.2012.05.001.
  • Roman-Liu, D., KamiŃska, J., & Tokarski, T. (2020). Effectiveness of workplace intervention strategies in lower back pain prevention: a review. Industrial health, 58(6), 503–519. https://doi.org/10.2486/indhealth.2020-0130
  • Russo, Fabrizio, Giuseppe Francesco Papalia, Gianluca Vadalà, Luca Fontana, Sergio Iavicoli, Rocco Papalia, and Vincenzo Denaro. (2021) “The Effects of Workplace Interventions on Low Back Pain in Workers: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 18, no. 23: 12614. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph182312614
  • Sheahan PJ, Diesbourg TL, Fischer SL. (2016) The effect of rest break schedule on acute low back pain development in pain and non-pain developers during seated work.  Appl Ergon.  53; 64-70. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apergo.2015.08.013.
  • Sowah, D., Boyko, R., Antle, D., Miller, L., Zakhary, M., & Straube, S. (2018). Occupational interventions for the prevention of back pain: Overview of systematic reviews. Journal of safety research, 66, 39–59. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsr.2018.05.007
  • Waongenngarm P, Areerak K, Janwantanakul P. (2018) The effects of breaks on low back pain, discomfort, and work productivity in office workers: A systematic review of randomized and non-randomized controlled trials. Appl Ergon. 2018 68:230-239. doi: 10.1016/j.apergo.2017.12.003.
  • WHO (2023) WHO guideline for non-surgical management of chronic primary low back pain in adults in primary and community care settings: Executive summary. Available from: 9789240085558-eng.pdf (who.int).
AECC Logo White
© 2024 AECC Clinical & Rehabilitation Services-