Prevention is better than cure and early intervention infinitely preferable to living with chronic back pain – the scourge of the modern business world. Experts offer advice for execs who are feeling the pinch
Bad back? Sore neck? Work stress, frequent flights and long hours spent poring over spreadsheets have caused a back pain epidemic among the nation’s executives. Lower back pain affects around a third of the UK adult population, costing the NHS an estimated £1.5bn per year.
But the cost to UK business is painful too. British workers are taking 35 million working days off a year according to research by the Work Foundation think-tank, and secondary effects of living with chronic back pain – such as stress, poor sleep and inability to concentrate – are having a significant impact on focus and decision-making in the corporate world.
While there is no one principal cause of back pain, stress is a major culprit. Anxiety can drastically increase muscle tension, leading to pain in both the upper and lower back. Being under pressure makes the shoulders go up, the posture become hunched and the back curve into an uncomfortable C-shape, straining the muscles.
And technology is often a contributing factor to our poor posture. “Working on laptops, tablets and other mobile devices causes the head to tip forwards and that puts a strain on the back,” says Mia Lederman, a registered osteopath and founding director of Living In Flowmotion, a company that works with businesses to change their work habits.
“The average adult head weighs 10-12lb. Research shows that when the head is tipped forwards at a 60 degree angle (when texting or working on a tablet, for example) the load on the neck and spine caused by the gravitational pull rises and is equivalent to 60lb. It’s what’s often known as ‘text neck’.”
The human body isn’t evolved to spend hours sitting still and carrying out repetitive tasks; we’re supposed to be moving around. Hours spent travelling, whether it’s a transatlantic flight or a long commute, deepen the problem.
Common causes of sickness absence include musculoskeletal conditions such as lower back pain and ‘work-relevant upper limb disorders’ like repetitive strain injury, which can cause discomfort in the arms, wrists, fingers, neck and shoulders.
Of course, your work life can not only cause health problems but also exacerbate the ones you already have. Putting your back out shifting furniture or overdoing it on the rowing machine could be the start of a long-term problem if the working day is spent sedentary and slouching at a desk.
As Dr Richard Heron from the Society of Occupational Medicine explains: “Someone may have a pre-existing condition, and they may also have issues in the workplace. It’s often the combination of these which ultimately leads to them becoming ill.”
Yet despite the wide-ranging and costly impacts of the problem, it’s one that so often gets ignored. Seven in 10 Britons have lived with neck pain or back twinges for more than a decade, according to a survey by the British Chiropractic Association.
Says Dr Adam Al-Kashi, head of research and education at BackCare: “Chronic back pain is linked to many negative health and life outcomes. Insomnia is a common co-morbidity affecting around 70 per cent of chronic back pain sufferers, and 22 per cent develop depression.” But incredibly, only around one in five sufferers – approximately 2.6 million people – will seek advice from their GP.
Consulting a professional for an assessment is essential; a trial in Madrid found that treating people within a week of the onset of back pain reduced sickness absence by 40 per cent, slashing the risk of them developing other serious conditions and significantly reducing sick pay bills.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommendation for lower back pain is manual treatment, such as osteopathy or chiropractic manipulation – although for more severe, longer-term problems go for the Alexander Technique (lessons in how to improve posture and movement for long-term benefit): “It’s very well evidenced as effective for persistent, intractable back and neck pain,” says Al-Kashi.
And lifestyle changes will make all the difference: “Switch from a passive relationship with health to a proactive one where you identify and target the factors that feed and perpetuate your pain cycle, with professional help. This means dealing with stress and anxiety, insomnia, activity levels, and sedentary behaviour”.
Indeed, moving more is key. Get up and move around for at least two minutes every half an hour to boost circulation and help the healing process of your back muscles, says Lederman.
“And set up your workstation correctly. The top of your screen should be at eye-level, with the screen directly in front of you, not side on. And make sure your arm isn’t outstretched to use the mouse, as it strains the upper back.”
Your thighs should be horizontal or tipping down, feet flat on the floor, says Lederman. “Most of your joints should be at 90 degrees when you are sitting at your desk.” It’s time to confront back pain head on: your health – and the UK economy – depends on it!
To learn more about caring for your back and ways to alleviate back pain, visit backcare.org.uk
5 steps to prevent and manage back pain
Move your seat
On a long journey move your seat forward, back, up and down every 15 minutes or so. This alters your posture and moves the groups of muscle fibres to a different position, easing discomfort.
Change your default position from sitting to standing, using a height-adjustable desk like a Varidesk Pro Plus 30.
Mobilise your spine
Exercises such as waist twists can be done seated or standing anywhere and help to ease out many unwanted kinks. A regular pilates or yoga class can improve posture and bring long-term back relief.
At your workstation alternate between sitting with your back against the back of the chair and with your bottom at the front of the seat, so you can move your legs more.
Rotate your tasks
Avoid doing one task for hours on end. Alternate computer and telephone use or, even better, go and speak to someone face-to-face.