5 Part Desk Pain Prevention

The ill-effects of sitting can be physically, internally, and emotionally complex and challenging for employees and those stuck behind a desk most of the day. It can also be very costly for employers in terms of medical expenses, decreased productivity, and days missed. For the sake of our work, we focus on the musculoskeletal aspect. Here is a 5-Part strategy you can easily implement in your daily routine to achieve optimal health and wellness complete with some additional resources to check out.

Part 1: Understanding Pain and Injuries.

I truly believe the first step of preventing pain and injury, or achieving optimal health, is to first understand how pain, injury and poor health occurs in the body. Education training is a key aspect and I am going to focus here on musculoskeletal health. First and foremost, it must be understood that pain is very complex and unique to every individual. Your pain, your colleague’s pain, and my pain may be experienced completely different even though a similar injury is present. We will just be covering the basic aspects of musculoskeletal pain with the understanding that the nuances are very individualized.

Physical Injury

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The Cumulative Injury Cycle pictured above represents the process in which over-use injuries and tissue damage may occur. This cycle is not limited to sitting or computer workstations, but anything you do repetitively. Since sitting is one of the most common activities that we face, this cumulative injury cycle occurs all too often in the desk worker An example of this in action would be the prolonged sitting with poor posture leading to tightness in your upper trapezius muscle. This is the muscle that attaches from the base of your skull to your shoulders. This leads to chronic tension in that muscle group and over time, leads to a lack of blood flow to that area and therefore lack of oxygen to the localized muscle fibers. This develops the scar tissue or “trigger point” in that muscle and you feel the “knot” in your neck that everyone complains of constantly. This type of cycle can happen in many areas of your body and is the essence of how over-use strain and pain/injury occurs. This cycle may also start with an Acute Injury such as a tear or crush injury that leads to localized inflammation. This becomes a vicious cycle that over time results in weaker and more tensed muscles and soft tissue and the cycle keeps on churning until the body sends off the alarm system that something is wrong.

That alarm system comes in the form of pain! Many people get confused and frustrated with over-use injuries and pain because they don’t know how it happened and don’t have an “event” or reason they can trace their injury to. The reason being that this cumulative injury cycle can lay dormant for weeks, months and even years before the straw that broke the camel’s back occurs. And again, sitting is a very common cause of falling into this cumulative injury cycle.


The Modern Desk Jockey Podcast

The Office Ergonomics Initiative

Part 2: Micro-Breaks and Spinal Hygiene

It is important to build micro breaks into the daily routine. As such, Stanford also provides the following ideas for making breaks a part of the workday: Move the printer to an area that requires you to stand up and walk to get a printout. Stand up when talking on the phone (the use of a stand-up desk is also helpful), Go to the restroom or get a cup of coffee/water (frequently; remember the glass of water every hour), Break up continuous computer time with tasks such as checking phone messages, reading reports, etc. While these changes may all seem small and insignificant, over time they can add up to a pretty good amount of movement throughout the day and can really help break up the cycle outlined above – with the added benefit of more mental clarity and productivity!

Our favorite intervention is a daily spinal hygiene routine. I like to perform 10 reps of 5 exercises in the morning as a good warmup for the day. The whole thing takes about 5 minutes and requires no equipment other than some open space on the floor. Click THIS LINK to see my personal routine in detail. Remember: only do what you can handle and reduce ranges of motion or reps if needed. Enjoy!

Part 3: Body Positioning and Awareness

 The key to injury prevention for the spine is to avoid improper positioning and movements that will cause undue stress. Abdominal Bracing and the hip hinge will keep the spine in a neutral position, allow for proper bending at the hips and protect the spine. Here are easy ways you can implement this into your life.

Hip Hinging: Bending at the hips, and not the low back, decreases the stress placed on the low back and increases strength & power. Check out this video and this video too.

Abdominal Bracing:  When all of your core muscles work together, a “Super Stiffness” occurs, and all 3 layers of the abdominal wall are activated to protect and stabilize the spine and discs. Without bending forward, contract the abdominal muscles (like you are about the get punched in your gut –feel them tighten with one hand) and the buttock muscles (as if you are holding in a bowel movement). You will feel the lower back muscles contract (with the other hand) when you contract your abs and buttocks. We wrote a whole blog article about Bracing Patterns and the Importance of Kegs, check it out!

Part 4: Proper Posture

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We could write a bunch of articles about the importance of proper posture (or at least better posture). To keep things simple for this context, imagine you’re driving your car with a poor alignment. The first few hundred or maybe even few thousand miles, things are fine, and you may not notice any issues. Then you may start noticing your car pulls one way, steering seems funky, and occasionally a squeaking sound comes from the engine but only for a moment. “It’s nothing,” you think to yourself as you keep driving on it “I change my own oil, things are fine.” Then one day you experience a blowout from a tire or a belt wears out and snaps. Then you’re really in a bad place!

We always advocate maintenance care and restoration of posture as opposed to catastrophic care. It’s easier for both of us, quicker, and a heck of a lot cheaper! Stay tuned for more on posture as we work a lot with that in our office. In the meantime, check out this amazing before and after picture!


Part 5: Corrective and Functional Exercise

Corrective exercises are typically spine-sparing strategies that include movements and stretches to correct postural distortions and musculoskeletal imbalances. This would include concepts like taking micro-breaks often at work to stretch for 20 seconds, look 20 yards away at an object to readjust the muscles in your eyes from staring at a computer screen. Other strategies for corrective exercise might include, overhead arm stretches, sitting to standing (squats!), spine mobilization exercises, and wall angels. These exercises can help open the posture from sitting in a forward flexed position for hours at a time. We have an extensive EXERCISE LIBRARY to help you out.

Functional rehabilitation would include incorporating functional exercises that are intended to activate the core and build strength and cardiovascular endurance.  This activation will help make the muscles stronger to endure hours of repetitive posture. Some of these exercises might include; side bridges, rows, planks, cat/camel exercises, bird dog and superman extension exercises just to name a few.  

What Now?

We see these issues day in and day out and have seen great success treating them! We may be able to help you get out of pain, move better, and be healthier than you ever thought possible. We can show you how; all you have to do is click the link below to start your journey towards wellness.