…But some are better than others

One question that I’m sure all chiropractors get asked a lot is “which is the best type of chair for the office?”

The Answer?… No chair at all

As far as your spine is concerned, it is far better to be standing than sitting. We were not built for sitting for long periods of time and sitting focusses extra loads on the lumbar spine, in particular the discs.

But it is understandable, in my opinion, that a person may not want to spend 8 hours of their day standing at their desk. Maybe it isn’t easy to concentrate or, if you are a person that wears silly but very stylish shoes, it’s just too uncomfortable.

It is not my job as a chiropractor to demand that all people change their habits for the sake of their spine without exceptions, or else. Chiropractors should highlight the habits that have contributed to painful backs, necks and headaches etc. and help people make spine saving adjustments that they can live and work with.

Think of it like a diet. Have you ever been on a diet that seemingly involves removing every single food that you love from your life? How many of us have managed to stick to it? A diet should be a lifestyle choice, not a quick fix. The same applies to spinal health, so if you find it is too uncomfortable to stand at a desk all day then that’s ok. Let’s make some less drastic changes that you can work with.

So let’s talk about sitting at the office

There are a couple of things to keep in mind about the spine whether you are at home, at work or out and about.

  1. Try to keep a neutral spine. The spine naturally forms lazy s-shaped curves and this is a neutral spine. A straight back (when looking from the side) is not a neutral spine. The spine needs the curves to optimally transfer forces and absorb shock. Remove them or reverse them and you take away the spines ability to do this.
  2. Discs need movement. Similar to how veins require you to move to pump blood back to the heart, the discs require movement to stay hydrated and receive nutrients. Discs do not have a good blood supply which is why any of you who have ever torn, bulged, herniated a disc will have had it plaguing your lives for a good long while, or been frustrated by the recurring “flare ups”.

So what happens when you sit in a chair for 8 hours or more of your day?

  1. The lumbar spine will flatten or reverse its inward curve, depending on how much you slouch, causing excess pressure on the front aspect of the discs leading to it been squeezed out towards the back.
  2. Ligaments and muscles become over stretched and will fatigue over time.
  3. The core muscles will deactivate and may as well be sitting on beach drinking cocktails. They aren’t supporting your spine.

Have you ever played Jenga?

The spine is like a tower of warped cube-like bones sitting one on top of another. Have you ever played the game jenga? If you were to start removing cubes from the base of the jenga tower, stability would soon be lost and the integrity of all of the above cubes will be compromised.

Desk based workers do not just suffer with lower back pain. Pain between the shoulder blades, shoulder pain and headaches are all common in desk based workers. A slouched lower back means a slouched upper back and neck which means upper back and neck pain. Just like with foundations of a house; if they are buckling under the pressure because they are unsupported, then everything above will also collapse.

So what is the best way to sit if you really must sit?

If you don’t want to stand all day then I recommend alternating between some sitting time and some standing time if your desk can be adjusted easily enough.

Below are some alternatives that you could try which I can recommend for different reasons.

  • Muvman stool – these are quite high stools that allow you to have your hips positioned much higher than your knees and thus keep you lower back in an ideal position without too much effort. You are still technichally siting though, so the feet will be more comfortable too.
  • Gaiam Ball – This yoga ball stool stops the spine from being too static during those long hours at the office. The discs and the soft tissues will become dehydrated and lose their elasticity if they are stuck in one position for too long, leaving them prone to micro tears and herniations. Their ability to support the spine will also decrease. One downside to this style though is that they are often fairly low and therefore not suitable for working at all desks.
  • Saddle stool – The shape of the saddle stool sits you onto all three seat bones which encourages a neutral spine position. The taller the stool, the better. If the height of the stool is sufficient then you are able to sit on the stool with good lower back posture and minimal effort. You can purchase saddle stools with or without back support, although due to the shape of the stool, it should not be necessary. You can also purchase them in the style of the muvman stool, with a wobble at the base. The downside to a saddle stool is that if it is too short (standard chair height) then you are able to sit on one as if it was a chair and can therefore easily slouch.

What I tell my patients

You can spend a lot of money on big expensive office chairs that are padded like an arm chair and have adjustable lumbar support, but the most important thing to look for is the seat height. A higher chair will support your lumbar spine much better than a puffy insert placed at the small of you back. The wobbly stools and the yoga ball chairs will help you to keep your spine moving throughout the day, even while you are seated. This is healthier for your discs.

Desk based work can be as hard on your spine and working on a construction site. Investing in the right chair/stool is investing in your spines health.