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
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?
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.
(top featured image by Tariq’s Fantasy World, Flickr)
This post is part of Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways.
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