You chair can cause back pain. The sad truth.

You chair can cause back pain. The sad truth.

Back pain. Many experience it. Did you know that back pain is the second most common reason for medical visits? According to Dr. Michael Roizen, about 65 million Americans suffer from back pain. He points out that “the way the odds play out, you’re likely to have about one serious episode of back pain for every 15 years of your life.”


The reasons for back pain are many: Lack of core strength, improper poster or alignment, poor habits when lifting or doing other hard labor, sedentary lifestyles. You know, the usual stuff. The problem is that I often hear of people experiencing back pain who are otherwise very fit people—the kind of people who try to “sit up tall” and understand the importance of exercise and movement.

Another culprit of back pain: Your chair


Your chair can cause back pain. Big time.

Is your chair a pain in the back? Learn why your chair may cause back pain.A couple of months ago my husband came home from work with his nice big office chair. The company he works for was moving into a new building and getting all new chairs. The employees were told they could take home their old chair if they wanted it. Tom thought I might want it, seeing how my current office chair is an old simple wooden chair that he picked up at the thrift store before we were married.

The chair he brought home was nice. It had a cushioned seat and back, lumbar support, arm rests… it could be adjusted for various heights as well as spin and roll around. Next to my old scratched up chair it looked like quite the upgrade. I moved it in front of my desk and basked in its comfy glory.

This is the part where the story starts to feel like a horror movie

While everything on the surface seemed handy-dandy, little by little I started to notice increasing intense pain and tension in my shoulders and neck. “It must be from carrying Little C, my not-so-much-like-a-baby-but-more-like-a-toddler,” I thought. Besides, I’m a movement therapist, an “expert” in all things posture related, right? Clearly I couldn’t be sitting improperly.

The back pain must be from my child, right?


I sat on that chair for probably 2 – 3 weeks and each night I found myself begging my husband for a neck massage (the deep, deep tissue kind that make you cry as you beg for more.) I had these knots the size of Texas. And they just got worse each day.  I didn’t know what was wrong.

But that’s the thing, I knew exactly what was wrong.
(I just didn’t want to admit it.)

Finally one morning, I walked into the office and moved Big Ole’ Comfy into the corner and put Good Ole’ Scratchy back in its place. As I sat down on my old, hard chair I felt a sensation that immediately reminded me of something I’ve known for a long time (I just allowed the sweet seduction of a cushiony, sleeker chair to make me believe otherwise):

Your body will release into gravity easier on a solid surface than it will on a cushioned one.

Why is this an important fact, and what does it have to do with back pain? Easy. Our bodies, by nature, want to feel secure. Just like a teenager in a group of peers, our body wants to feel comfortable and like it can trust its surroundings.

Despite that fact that the fancy chair has all sorts of “ergonomic” features to help shape itself to my body, it’s softness is one of the biggest hazards to pain-free sitting. It does its job too well. (Not to mention the fact that the chair tends to promote slouching–another major factor in back pain). Its cushions create an unstable surface. This surface often signals our brain to “hold on” just in case there isn’t the support we need. And before you know it, subconsciously you are tensing your muscles more than you otherwise would. You begin to literally “hold yourself up” instead of releasing down into gravity’s help.

This is why our shoulders and neck seem to get the brunt of it. They are trying to protect the body.

A soft chair doesn’t allow the body’s structure to connect to the spatial relationship between gravity and the tensile forces of our muscular-skeletal system.

Yep, once again the “man-made” version has got in the way of back to basics living. Our bodies were designed to release into the pull of gravity. As we allow gravity to “do it’s thang,” our skeleton works in opposition (think of Newton’s third law of motion) to bring an easy aliveness to our posture. Standing or sitting tall doesn’t become a chore or something we need to remember to do. It’s built into the system… that is, until we put a big soft cushion under our bottom.

Of course, in order to take advantage of that hard surface, you do need to consider your alignment and how you are sitting in it. (Want to know more, check out this series.)

So I said “goodbye” to the sleek, comfy chair (like this one) and “hello” to my old friend (like this one). We have a more trusting, comfortable relationship. I know that Good Ole’ Scratchy has got my back (or my butt).

What do you look for in a chair? Do you struggle with back pain? Does your chair cause back pain?

Want to learn more about posture, movement, and how both can lead toward a pain-free life? Make sure to check out my book Pain Free.


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About the author

Hi! I'm and I’m passionate about healthy living: feeling nourished, having energy, getting good sleep, and feeling strong. I believe healthy living does not have to be complicated or stressful. I’m a Registered Somatic Movement Therapist (RSMT) and a Certified Laban/Bartenieff Movement Analyst (CLMA). I’m also an avid researcher and love to read about nutrition, the body, and toxic-free living. Learn more.

View all articles by Robin Konie


  1. Sarah

    My theories on all our furniture are true! My favorite chair is my nice wood rocking chair. It has a high back that supports my entire upper half when I want to lean back, but it is nice and hard so I can actually give it all my weight.

  2. Melissa

    I’ve done surprisingly well sitting on our kitchen chairs to work… till recently… but I didn’t change chairs, so I have to figure out what did change!

  3. Pingback: Just Move: Lifting babies is like lifting weights | | Thank Your BodyThank Your Body

  4. Emily @ ButterBeliever

    Wow! This is both fascinating and depressing to me, seeing as how I just spent a bunch of money on a new office chair, lol! I don’t know if I’m brave enough to swap it out for a totally hard chair — I always feel like I can’t sit on hard surfaces for very long before my bony butt starts throbbing and hurting. Why is that? Is it just that my posture sucks? I’m really excited for your new e-book, Robin, because I think I have a LOT to learn from you about all this!

    1. robin

      Ha! Didn’t mean to depress you, Emily. :)

      You can still “sit well” on a soft chair, just remind yourself to let your neck and shoulders release downward. I hope to do a future post on ways to get the most out of any chair for better support and comfort.

      As far as the bony butt goes, you can also try a harder chair with a blanket folded a couple of times on it. That way you can protect the caboose without a ton of soft cushions.

      If posture is a question, check out this series for some other advice:

      And thanks for your kind words. It means a lot.

  5. Janet

    I think every person’s body is different and gets used to one thing or another. When we try to change it’s not always going to feel comfortable, but it certainly shouldn’t cause spasms, etc.

    I used to have the most trouble in the car. One hip or the other always gave me a problem. A doctor explained to me that there is no car built with a level seat. The stretching of the fabric, etc. changes everything too. He suggested I sit on memory foam to be able to sit level. What I found was McCarty’s sacroease at Relax the Back store. (My dentist also had one.) They bend the back of it in the store and they will adjust it again if you need it. I’ve never had a problem since using it. All my life I’ve used all kinds of cushions, but never again. It is portable and you can use it in the house or on an airplane. I have a small new chair that is not supportive at all, so I’ve been meaning to bring it in to try it in the house. I really should get a kick-back from the company, but good karma will have to do.;)

  6. Marieanne G.

    sit on an exercise Ball, works your core at the same time and is less stressful on your back.

    1. Post author

      Exercise balls are great replacements for desk chairs IF they are the proper size. If they are too small it can create a lot of tension in the shoulders. :)

  7. Lisa

    This actually reminds me of why I can’t relax in a bathtub or hot tub. It blows me away that people find them so relaxing when I have to tense up my body to keep in place.

    Similar ideas, so I can totally see how this relates. Thanks for the perspective.

  8. Maureen

    I’m having trouble sitting in my car seat. The head rest is too far back. Any ideas to correct that? The car is a 1999. From what I read the newer cars have the opposite problem, the headrest is too far forward. Thanks for any ideas.

    1. Post author
      Robin Konie

      Take a small hand towel, roll it up, and place it just under your shoulder blades. Make sure your seat is upright enough that the towel makes a sort of bolster to keep your back supported. You head will not need to touch the headrest and you’ll still get support. Hope that makes sense!

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