Back pain at the computer

Make using your computer back pain proof by following these 4 tips for a comfortable, happier and less painful working day. 

Now as a worker in the construction industry you may not spend much time (if any) sat behind a computer. 

​And that can be a very good thing. 

​Because sitting behind a desk for more than 4 hours per day has been found to be a big cause of lower back pain in office workers. 

However in the technological age we are in computers are finding their way into most workplaces, even within construction. 

"I'd rather be unblocking a toilet Kev"

And don't forget the hours you spend on them after work whether that is typing up quotes or invoices, using social media, playing games or watching movies and sports streams.

It all adds up and if you don't get yourself, your desk and your computer set-up right you could be just as much at risk of lower back pain as the office workers.

So read on and I'll go through the 4 things you must do to ensure you can use a computer safely and without causing yourself damage.​

Why Do You Get Back Pain At The Computer?​

Have you felt that familiar twinge in your lower and middle back after being sat down at your computer for a while?

I know I have.

And it doesn't stop with your back either.

Your neck and shoulders also feel stiff and your eyes feel strained and tired.

Which all makes using a computer much more of a chore than it needs to be.

Want to know why this happens?​ Here are the four main reasons:

Sitting At The Computer Compresses Your Vertebrae Which Weakens Your Spinal Discs​

​The biggest problem people have when it comes to using their computers is the length of time they spend sitting in one position.

​Because not only does your body hate to be stuck in the same position for too long.

Sitting also puts more pressure on your spine than standing or walking.​

So if you sit behind a computer regularly it can be a massive cause of lower back pain and can also cause you many other health problems in the long run

And one of the reasons for this is compressed vertebrae.​

Your spine is made up of vertebrae and in between each of these vertebrae is a spinal disc.

These discs do a great job for your back as they help to hold the spine together, facilitate it's movements and absorb any shocks as you move around.​

So keeping these discs healthy is absolutely crucial if you want to stay clear of back pain.

The problem is that to stay healthy these discs need you to be moving​ around.

Because this is when they take in the blood, oxygen and nutrients they need to stay strong.

​However when you sit down at your computer these discs become compressed and as a result can't get what they need.

And this leads to them weakening ​over time which is a massive problem for your spine.

Because it loses flexibility and the shock absorbing protection it needs to keep you free from pain.

So you end up with back pain both in and out of your computer chair as a result.​

Sitting At The Computer Weakens the Muscles That Support Your Spine

Sitting isn't just bad for your spinal discs.

It also has a weakening effect on your muscles, especially the ones that your back relies on for support.

Which is bad news.​

Because your core muscles, glutes, hamstrings, groin and abdominal muscles all play a vital role in keeping your back supported and strong throughout the day.

However these muscles need activity to stay strong, healthy and be able to do that job.​

Which they don't get while remaining dormant as you are sitting at your computer.​

​So if you sit at the computer regularly these muscles weaken and won't be able to offer the same level of support to your spine.

Which will put your lower back under even more strain and pressure and will ​leave you in pain behind the screen.

Sitting With a Bad Posture At The Computer Puts Your Lower Back Under Pressure

How you sit while at your computer will have a massive influence over whether you feel back pain or not.

And unfortunately many of us sit with an unhealthy posture that puts our bodies under unnecessary strain.

bad sitting posture

I can feel this guy's pain from just looking at him!

It's a bad habit that may be so deeply ingrained that you probably don't even realise you are doing it!

So let's go over some of the no-no's when it comes to sitting:​

  • Leaning forward.
  • Looking down at the screen.
  • Slouching.
  • Hunching or tensing your shoulders.
  • Crossing your legs or feet.
  • Sitting with your spine in a 'C' shaped curve rather than an 'S' shaped one.

All of these will put your lower back under much more pressure than it needs to be as you sit so it's no wonder it gets angry!

And you'll also feel pain and stiffness in your neck, shoulders and upper back unless you get your sitting posture right.

So it's vital that you work on doing just that when you're at the computer.​

Getting Your Computer Desk Set-Up Wrong

​The height of your desk and where things are placed on it will also affect the amount of strain your body comes under at the computer.

Bad desk ergonomics have been found in studies to lead to many problems for office workers such as pain in the back, shoulders, arms, wrist and neck as well as eyestrain.

So you have plenty of good reasons for making sure you get your desk set-up right!​

Some of the common mistakes people make are:​

  • Having their chairs too high or too low.
  • Sitting at a desk that's too low for their chairs.
  • Looking down at their computer screen or having it too close/far away.
  • Having the keyboard and mouse too far away from their bodies.
  • Overreaching for things that they use often.

So the best way to make sure you avoid pain and repetitive strain injuries while using your computer is to get your desk and workstation right.

And I'll explain how you can do just that below.​

How To Make Back Pain At The Computer A Thing Of The Past

​Up until now I've focused on the doom and gloom aspects of sitting behind your desk.

But the good news is that sitting at your computer doesn't have to be a nightmare situation for your back.

Because by consciously adopting some good habits and re-adjusting your desk area you can make a massive difference to your working experience.​

And end up with a far happier and healthier back as a result.​

So go through these tips one by one and try and implement as many of them as you can.​

1.​ Sit With a Good Posture

Maintaining a good posture as you sit at the computer is so important because by doing so you will be taking lots of pressure off your lower back.

And it's not just good for getting rid of back pain. It can also:

  • Improve your breathing which helps your muscles to stay relaxed and free of tension and pain.
  • Keep your body balanced so the workload involved with sitting is spread evenly rather than being dumped on your lower back.
  • Improve your mood and concentration making you more productive.

​So it's well worth the effort to try and improve your sitting posture.

The aim here​ is to sit in a way that positions your body into a natural, comfortable and balanced posture that maintains an S-shaped curve in your spine.

This is the neutral position for your back and helps to reduce any strain and pressure on it.

Now there are a few different elements you need to get right to be able to achieve this and I'll take you through those now.

Just keep in mind that your body should feel relaxed in a good posture rather than tense and uncomfortable as this will help you stay on the right track.​

Good desk ergonomics

Aim for something similar to this and you won't go far wrong.

​Sitting Angle

Slouching back or leaning forward are two common mistakes that will put your body under increasing strain.

Instead you need to sit up fairly straight (but not too straight!) keeping your spine in a more neutral position.

Aim to keep your back at an angle between 90-100 degrees with your legs at the hips as you sit.

And try to maintain a slight arch in your lower back that keeps the S-shaped curve in your spine going.

Using a chair with good lumbar support or a lumbar support cushion are both good ways to make this easier to do.

​Knees and Legs

The position of your knees and how you place your feet will impact how much work your lower back has to do as you sit.

So getting this right can take away a lot of stress and tension.​

Your chair needs to be at a height where your thighs are parallel to the floor when you are sat in it.

And your knees should be bent at a 90 degree angle and clearing the edge of your seat cushion by at least an inch.

Now make sure your feet are placed flat on the floor.

​This is really important as your feet help to support your body weight as you sit and they will keep your back in a neutral position when you have them on the floor like this.

So don't stretch them out or cross them​ because this will mean they can't do this and your back takes on more of the strain.

And your posture will also suffer, placing your joints and muscles under more stress.

So keep your feet on the floor!​

And if you can't reach the floor because of the height of your chair then use a foot stool or a pile of books instead.

​Head, Neck and Shoulders

Looking down or leaning forward to see your screen is only ever going to lead to pain in your neck, upper back and between your shoulder blades.

So make sure you are looking ahead at your screen rather than down at it (more on this later).

Keep your chin lifted and your shoulders relaxed and pulled back as you are doing this.

And try to keep your ears and shoulders in alignment to prevent your neck from tilting forward.

This will train you to keep your head up.​

By learning to sit tall you can maintain good spinal alignment and take a lot of the strain out of working at your computer.​

Arms, Hands and Wrists

Keeping things within proper reach and your arms supported helps to take the strain off your shoulders and upper back as you work.

So sit close to your desk and make sure things like your keyboard and mouse are close enough so you're not overreaching for them.

For the best results your elbows should be close into your body while using your computer and remain at an angle of between 90-110 degrees.

And use the armrests of your chair to rest your arms on so they remain relaxed and straight.​

This will take a lot of pressure off your shoulders.​

2.​ Set Your Desk Up Right to Minimise any Strain

It's one thing learning how to sit with a good posture but if you set your desk up wrong then it'll be impossible to get rid of your back pain.

Because having things at the wrong heights, distances and angles will force you to strain as you work and in many cases make it impossible to maintain a healthy posture.

So it's vitally important that you get your desk ergonomics right.​

This takes a little work but it doesn't have to be difficult (or expensive).

So read on and I'll take you through each of the key aspects you need to do to ​achieve this.

Position​ Your Monitor Correctly

The position of the monitor on your desk is a crucial thing to get right as it is the thing you are going to be focused on for the whole time you are at your computer.

And this will have a big impact on whether you can keep your body balanced and in alignment.​

However it's the one thing that so many people get wrong.

​Two common mistakes are:

  • Having the monitor to one side rather than in the centre meaning you have to strain your neck to one side to look at it.
  • Having the monitor too low which means you are looking down at it, tilting your neck and throwing your spine out of alignment.

Both of these will only lead to pain and discomfort over the course of the day.

So instead follow these guidelines to get your monitor at exactly the right height and position to keep you healthy:

  • Your monitor should be at a height so that when you are sitting in a good posture with your head up you can look straight ahead at the top of the screen at eye-level.
  • It should be placed centrally so you don't have to turn your body or neck to see it.
  • It should be about an arms length away from you to avoid eyestrain and headaches.

If your monitor is too low then raise it to the right height either with an adjustable monitor stand or by making your own using a pile of sturdy books.

Safe Laptop Use

Many people choose to work on their laptop rather than a desktop computer nowadays.

But while they give you more freedom and flexibility they can be even worse for giving people back pain.

This is because good posture goes out of the window when using one.

For example many use them while lounging on beds, slouching on couches or lazing in hammocks (if the digital nomads are to be believed).​

This position won't do you any favours.

​All of which I wouldn't recommend if you want to avoid back pain!

However even if you use your laptop at your desk and observe all the good protocols I've outlined already there is still one big problem.

And that is the screen.

Because as it is attached to the keyboard you will always be looking down at it which will lead to upper back, neck and shoulder pain​ in no time.

However there is a good way around this and that is to use a laptop stand and a wireless keyboard and mouse.

By doing this you can raise the laptop screen to the perfect height so you are looking straight ahead at it rather than straining your neck.

I recently changed to this set-up and I've definitely noticed the difference, especially between my shoulder blades where I used to get pain and discomfort.

I use the Urbo stand from the UK and it's working fine for me​, but if you are from the US you could try the Roost stand which is a really popular and higher quality stand.

Or you could just place your laptop on that pile of books instead if you want to save some cash.

But either way you will still need to buy yourself a wireless mouse and keyboard.​

There's a massive selection of these available on Amazon depending on the size, shape and bells and whistles you want your keyboard to have so you have plenty of choice.

Adjust Your Chair

It's really important that you get your seat to be the right height if you are going to stay healthy at the computer.

However an easy mistake to make is to adjust the seat so it's the right height for YOU.​

That seems logical right? But it's not the way to go.

​Instead you need to adjust your chair so it suits the height of your desk

This way you can position your body into the perfect posture to work on that particular desk.

And if that means you have to raise the height of the chair so much that you can't place your feet flat on the ground then you need to use a foot stool to maintain your posture. ​

However just adjusting the height of your chair isn't enough.

You also need your chair to be a​ble to do a lot more which can cause a problem.

Because many computer chairs are designed as a one size fits all solution and are lacking the features you need to ward off back pain at the computer.

In fact using a crappy office chair could just be what is causing it!​

If your computer chair looks like this get rid of it!

​Photo credit: Drew Allen

This is because they offer zero lumbar support and can't be adjusted to suit your needs.​

Which forces you to sit with an unhealthy posture that puts your body under constant strain.​

Use an Ergonomic Computer Chair

Using a fully adjustable ergonomic chair on the other hand will work wonders for your back.

ergonomic chair for back pain

Adjustable height, arms, lumbar support and tilt control = a happy back.

Photo credit: Mark Pang

These chairs are great because they can be adjusted to fit you like a glove and match up perfectly to your computer desk.

And they come with the following benefits for your back:​

  • You can adjust the height to get yourself at the ideal level for your desk.
  • They also have adjustable armrests which you can raise or lower to keep your arms at the right angle and keep your shoulders relaxed.
  • They have great lumbar support which helps you to keep a slight arch in your lower back as you sit.
  • The tilt function means you can rock back and forth slightly as you sit. This is great because it allows you to move naturally and keeps your core and abdominal muscles active.
  • They have an increased seat depth which allows your lower back to rest against the back of the chair.
  • When sitting on one of these chairs your weight gets distributed evenly so your back won't be under undue strain.

All of which will make you feel much better at the computer and this makes an ergonomic chair a great investment for your long-term health.

Now there are some great models on the market such as the Herman Miller Aeron Chair.

However these do come with a hefty price tag to match.

So if you want a more affordable option check out the Space Seating Professional Airgrid Chair instead.

Correct Desk Layout

​Adjusting your chair so it's the perfect height for your desk is great in every circumstance except one.

And that is if your desk is too low.

Because if your desk is too low you'll have to lower your chair too much to get your legs under it.

Which will throw your posture off as your knees will be above your hips (and your thighs will probably be squeezed up uncomfortably against the desk).

So if you find this is the case you either need to get a taller desk or increase the height of your current one.

You can do this by placing things underneath the corners such as blocks, wood or something similar until it reaches the right height.

And a really cool site to use to make sure you're getting your desk heights and ergonomics right is Ergotron's Workspace Planner.​

The Ergotron Workspace Planner.

By entering your height it will give you the optimal heights and distances for both your sitting and standing desk set-ups.

It's really useful so check it out for yourself by clicking here.​

However it's not just the height of the desk you need to watch out for.

​You also need to be aware of the following:

  • Don't store things or have drawers under your desk as this will restrict both your space, comfort and movement.
  • Place the things you use most regularly closest to you on the desk to avoid overreaching and straining.
  • Make sure your keyboard and mouse are in the optimal position.

Which brings me on nicely to...

Keyboard and Mouse Position

Placing your keyboard and mouse in the right position will help to keep your shoulders and arms relaxed as you work.

Keep that 'B' in the centre!

​And it will also help you to stay balanced, aligned and free of tension.

So make sure you:​

  • Keep your keyboard and mouse on the same surface level and close enough to you so your elbows stay close to your body when you are using them.
  • They should be on your desk at the same height as your elbows when your shoulders are relaxed (this should be simple if you've adjusted your chair correctly).
  • Make sure the letters on the keyboard are centered in front of you (so that the 'B' key is dead centre) and place the mouse to one side of it close by.

A wireless mouse and keyboard may make this easier for you to achieve.

Just make sure you can keep your wrists, arms and elbows in the right positions as you use them both.​

3.​ Alternate Between Sitting and Standing

So if sitting behind a desk when using a computer is causing all these problems then why not just stand up instead right?

I mean standing desks are all the rage nowadays aren't they?

Using a standing desk for 20 minutes every hour can make a big difference for your back.

Unfortunately as with most things regarding back pain it's not quite that simple.

Because studies have shown that standing up for long periods of time can also lead to the development of lower back pain.

It seems like you just can't win sometimes!

However the answer here is to do both.

Because by splitting your time between sitting at the computer and standing while you are using it you can get around the one thing your body (and back) hates the most.

And that is being stuck in the same position for too long.​

This has worked out great for office workers with one study showing they had a 54% decrease in their amount of back and neck pain in only 4 weeks when alternating between a sitting and a standing desk.​

However to get good results from alternating between sitting and standing throughout the day you need to get the ratio right.​

For instance another study found that when workers stood for 45 minutes and sat for 15 minutes every hour it had zero effect on their back pain.

But when they sat for 40 minutes and stood for 20 minutes ​their back pain greatly reduced.

So get your time ratios right​ and this can be an extremely effective tactic for beating back pain at the computer.

Sit/Stand Desks​

One way you can try this tactic for yourself either at home or at work is to buy yourself a sit/stand desk.

These stands sit on top of your desk and can be easily adjusted so you can get them to sit at the perfect height for you whether you are sitting or standing.

​And the one I'd recommend is the Varidesk Height Adjustable Standing Desk.

This one has 11 different height settings so it's easy to position at the perfect height for you.

Plus it has two different surfaces that mean you can keep your monitor and keyboard at different heights which is vital for maintaining a healthy posture when standing.​

And ​this is important as maintaining a good posture and neutral spine when standing is just as important as when sitting.

Correct standing posture

Keep an eye on your posture as you stand too.

4.​ Take Regular Microbreaks

I've already explained the dangers for your back of sitting in the same position for long periods of time in this article.

​And this is what makes pain at the computer so common.

The compressed and degenerating vertebrae and the weakening supporting muscles all mean a hellish future for your back.

However there is a great way to negate these effects and that is by taking regular microbreaks from your chair.

Use your microbreaks to stretch and mobilise your body.

By getting up out of your seat for 5 minutes every half an hour you are jolting your body back into life.

​And this is a great way to relieve the tension and pressure that has been building up while you've been sat down and will allow you to start afresh again after your microbreak is over.

What You Need to do on Your Microbreaks​

Simply getting up and out of your chair during your microbreaks is not enough.

You need to use this time to mobilise and get some movement back into your body.

This will get your blood flowing again, reactivate your dormant muscles, and help your vertebrae decompress and your discs to take in some much needed oxygen and nutrients.​

So when the time comes for a microbreak try going for a walk rather than just getting up to make a coffee.

Or give your body a good stretch out.

This will work wonders for alleviating any muscle stiffness and soreness and is a great habit to get into for your overall health.

For some ideas of what kind of stretches you can do check out the video below from Fitness Blender:​

Make Sure You Don't Forget to Take Your Microbreak​

It can be easy to get so caught up in what you are doing that you forget to stop and get up out of your chair for a walk or a stretch.

I often do this myself when working ​on this site.

I get into such a flow sometimes that I ​lose myself in the writing and only realise when I check the time and notice a few hours have zoomed past.

Either that or my back begins to send me the message to take a break!​

So to make sure you never miss a microbreak you need to set yourself a reminder to stop every half an hour and take a 5 minute break.

You can do this by setting an alarm on your phone or programming reminders into your computer.

However another good option I like is the Backache phone app.

​Not only will this app send reminders to your phone when you are due for a microbreak.

But it will also send you short videos of physiotherapist recommended stretches and exercises to do while you are taking your break.

So you'll not only know when to stop, you'll also know exactly what to do when you do stop!

​Take a look at the Backache app in action in the video below:

You can download it here:​

Rounding Up

Sitting at your computer can be a chore especially when it causes you back pain and discomfort.

This happens for a variety of reasons such as sitting in the same position with a bad posture for hours, getting your desk set-up wrong and using inadequate chairs.

However using your computer doesn't have to lead to back pain.

By getting your desk ergonomics right, sitting with a good posture, using an ergonomic chair, alternating between sitting and standing, and taking regular microbreaks you can be working more comfortably in no time.

So don't allow your back to crash and burn at the computer. 

Take action today and start to enjoy rather than dread your time behind your desk.

Resources used in researching this article:​​​​


A 30-something painter and decorator, psychology graduate, and veteran of 5 spinal surgeries. Looking to explore the physical, psychological and emotional effects of living with chronic low back pain.

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