PT Classroom - Tips on How to Relieve Muscle Tension and Reduce Stress Caused by Hours of Desk Work ׀ by Jennifer Hill, MPT, CSCS


In today’s competitive workplace, complaining of a backache is tantamount to bellyaching. A tension headache can be a temporary headache caused by tightening of the muscles in the mid-back and neck. Sitting for long periods of time may in fact lead to recurring pain everyone should take heed of.

In order for less stress to be placed on muscles and joints, you need to have good posture. The goal of good posture is to maintain the three natural curves of the spine in the normal, balanced alignment. To keep your spine aligned, you need strong, flexible muscles to hold your spine in position. Then, by learning how it feels to be in good posture, you’ll develop the body awareness that helps you stay in good posture throughout the day, no matter what you’re doing.

Your spine has three natural curves: the cervical curve of the your neck, the thoracic curve of your middle back, and the lumbar curve of your lower back (lordosis). To test whether your three curves are in their natural alignment, imagine a plumb line beside your body. If your ears, shoulders, pelvis, knees, and ankles line up on the plumb line, your three curves are in the correct position.

Posture exercises give you the strength and flexibility you need to maintain your spine’s three natural curves. Strong muscles hold the bones and joints of your spine in good alignment. Flexible muscles won’t pull your bones and joints out of line. A Physical Therapist can instruct you on proper posture exercises designed to strengthen and lengthen specific muscles. Here are a few common exercises Physical Therapists prescribe: Hamstring Stretch, Hip Flexor Stretch, Curl Up, Kneeling Arm and Leg Extension

The body also needs variety and movement to function properly. When we sit, certain muscles remain contracted. If you maintain that position for a long time, the muscles lose their elasticity and tighten, putting strain on joints. Also, a big problem with sitting comes from the fact that your low back if pulled out of its natural position when you place your legs at a 90-degree angle to your hips. Studies show that when you drop into a chair, your hips stop rotation after the first 60 degrees of descent. “To move your legs the final 30 degrees into position, the muscles of the back of your thighs pull the bottom of your pelvis forward to tip it backward,” says Galen Cranz, Ph.D., a professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkley and the author of The Chair. “That”, says Cranz, “flattens the lumbar curve.” Therefore, people who sit a lot tend to have shortened hip flexors and hamstrings. When we stand up, those tightened muscle groups put stress on the pelvis and low back. This can lead to chronic problems like a herniated disc.

The best advice is to get up from the chair and walk around. However, if a heavy workload has you chained to your desk, using proper posture and learning some simple stretching techniques can help. Bad habits, like slouching and crossing your legs, contribute to tension headaches and neck, shoulder and low back pain.

Here are some general guidelines for proper sitting posture:
• Maintain the normal curves of your spine – Do not sit slumped or bent forward. Use a cushion or rolled towel if your chair does not provide adequate support for your lower back
• Place feet comfortably on the floor or footrest – The chair should not dig into the back of your knees. Your feet should rest on the floor or footrest and not dangle.
• Knees and hips and elbows should be bent at a right (90 degree) angle
• Sit close to your work – Locate frequently used materials within arm’s reach. This will help you avoid awkward movements and excessive reaching, bending or twisting of your spine.
• If you have limited legroom, try sliding forward on the chair slightly and lowering your knees – This will allow you to get closer to your work. Also, use a cushion or towel roll for added low back support. This position is not recommended for extended periods of time because it increases pressure on the back of the legs.
• Perform some of your work standing, if the job permits – This can reduce some of the pressure on your back
• Keep a good sitting posture while driving – Keep the seat close to the steering wheel. Use a small cushion or pillow for additional support to your low back.

Stretching every hour or two is also a good strategy to preventing back pain from sitting too long. Hold each of these stretches for a minimum of 20-30 seconds and do several repetitions.

• chin tuck
• shoulder blade squeezes
• seated Hamstring stretch

So now that you know about good posture, what will you do? It’s quite simple. Respect the spinal curves. Use these good strategies and you will be on your way to a healthy spine.

Last revised: July 18, 2011
by Jennifer Hill, MPT, CSCS

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