Work-related low back pain can be quite a crippling problem and is one of the major causes of leaves being taken from work. And rightly so because you should not work if you have back pain.
Nowadays, low back pain due to long hours at work and working on the computer is becoming more common especially among the younger population.
This is because of long hours at the computer table or at a work desk with a wrong sitting posture. Before going into the back pain causes, symptoms, and treatment, in brief, let us know a little about the anatomy of the backbone.
Structure and anatomy of the backbone
The backbone (called the vertebral column) is made up of a series of bones (called the vertebrae) placed one above the other with intervening cartilage called the intervertebral disc. These vertebrae are held in position by the various muscles of the back.
The lower part of the vertebral column is called the lumbar region and the sacrum, which is situated below the lumbar region. The corresponding vertebrae are thus called the lumbar and the sacral vertebrae.
There is a disc called the intervertebral disc, which is situated between two adjoining vertebrae. This disc is made of cartilage and functions as a shock absorber and acts as a cushion between the two vertebrae. It also facilitates the movements of the back such as bending, etc.
Various nerves coming from the spinal cord exit from the spaces between the two adjacent vertebrae, and supply the various corresponding areas of the body.
Causes of back pain
There are various causes of lower back pain such as age, trauma, scoliosis, growth, herniated disc (slipped disc) referred pain from some other part, spondylosis, spondylitis, spondylolisthesis, spinal stenosis, vertebral fractures due to osteoporosis.
However, here, we shall discuss the causes of work-related low back pain when sitting in front of the computer or at a desk at work in the wrong posture.
Sitting for hours at a desk or in front of the computer every day and day after day is the routine for many of us. We tend to adopt a slightly relaxed posture, which becomes a routine.
When we talk of a relaxed posture, we mean a posture with a slight hunching of the back or leaning back while sitting on the chair or slouching.
This wrong posture puts a strain on the muscles of the back. And when this happens over prolonged periods, these back muscles tend to weaken.
As a result of this weakness, the concerned muscles cannot function properly and the vertebra which they hold up tends to slip.
This results in the space between the two adjacent vertebrae becoming less. As a result, the vertebrae exert pressure on the intervertebral disc, which slowly collapses and starts wearing off.
As this happens, the nerves which are passing through the intervertebral spaces get compressed or pinched and the various symptoms described below, occur. This condition is called spondylosis.
Symptoms of low back pain increase in severity if the condition is left untreated. There is pain in the affected area of the back. As the condition progresses, and the nerves start getting compressed or pinched, the areas supplied by the nerves, start feeling pain, numbness, and tingling.
The nerves coming out of the lower vertebrae supply the lower limbs and therefore, tingling and numbness will be experienced in the back and the lower limbs. There may also be sharp shooting pains in the lower limbs.
The inability to bend, sit and stand for a long time is another characteristic feature. Low back pain which comes about due to your work habits must not be ignored and corrective steps should be taken promptly.
As mentioned earlier, this can be quite a crippling problem and should be prevented. However, there is no cost involved to prevent work-related lower back pain.
There is a requirement of say 20 minutes of your time every day and a total commitment on your part to your own self to follow the preventive regime.
1. Correct sitting posture
It is imperative that you always maintain an upright posture when sitting. Your back should be at right angles to your thighs with the legs on the ground or a footrest. Do not slouch and do not lean backward.
The small of the back should be resting firmly against the angle of the ‘L’ of the chair or the sofa. The importance of this cannot be expressed more seriously.
2. Exercises to prevent low back pain
Every day, without fail, say twenty minutes, should be allocated for exercises. If you are a computer man sitting in front of the computer or at a work-desk for hours every day, then special attention should be given, besides other things, to exercises of the back and the neck. However, refer to sites on yoga, as they will guide you on the proper exercises to strengthen the back muscles.
Please note that, if you are already having back pain, then you should see your doctor and take treatment. You should only follow exercises prescribed by your physiotherapist, and that too, when the back pain has subsided.
When back pain develops, you should promptly undertake corrective measures. It can cause you to be regularly absent from work. This can have an adverse effect on your work performance and can even get you fired. Seek treatment immediately.
Treatment consists of the following:
According to pubmed.gov, bed rest is effective for treating back pain. However, the recommended duration may vary from 2 days to 2 weeks.
Dugs prescribed for back pain include anti-inflammatory painkillers for joint inflammation and muscle relaxants to relieve muscle spasm.
Spinal traction is a form of conservative and decompression therapy that is used to treat sciatica, herniated discs, pinched nerves, degenerative disc disease, and some other back conditions.
You lie on the table that has a set of a pulley, a rope, and weights. Traction is applied to the spine downwards towards the legs. The aim is to decompress any compression of the vertebrae that has occurred.
Physiotherapy for back pain is a type of therapy that helps to improve the strength and function of the vertebral joints and muscles of the back.
Passive physiotherapy includes heat application, ice packs, and electrical stimulation.
Active physiotherapy focuses on some specific strengthening and stretching exercises of the back muscles.
People who develop back pain may be advised to wear a lumbosacral belt for anything from a few days to two weeks.
The lumbar belt gives firm support to the back and keeps the back muscles in a neutral position, thus preventing the muscles from getting strained.
It does not allow you to go into that improper posture, which one easily tends to go into. It is easy to strap on and can be worn over the clothes just before sitting on your workstation.
Moreover, It can be kept at your workstation table so you don’t have to carry it to work and back every day.
Surgical intervention in advanced cases
There are several surgical options for back pain and each has its indication. For example:
- A laminectomy is done to remove lamina, bone spurs, or ligaments to remove any pressure being exerted on the outgoing spinal nerves.
- A foraminotomy cuts away the sides of the vertebrae to comfortably allow the nerve roots to exit the spine.
- A discectomy involves the removal of that part of the herniated lumbar disc that is pressing on the spinal cord or the exiting nerve root.
- Disc replacement is a surgical procedure used to replace a damaged intervertebral disc with an artificial disc.
- Spinal fusion is a very common surgery in which the surgeon joins the affected vertebrae to restrict the movement of a vertebral joint and thus prevent pain.
Note that work and computer-related back pain is the 2nd highest cause after cold, for absentees from work. Take it seriously.