In this post we discuss whether desk work can cause neck and back injuries and how to approach the issue if you’re suffering from pain.
I recently read a post on LinkedIn that claimed desk workers were ‘destroying their bodies’ by, well, sitting at their desk.
The post had illustrations of a skeleton sitting at a desk with red electricity coming out of its spine. Apparently this represented where injuries were likely to occur.
This was topped off with stats on how much your head weighs in forward head postures. The final figure being frightening enough to have most people sitting up straight.
His advice was to invest in an elaborate desk set up that resulted in the skeleton adopting a military parade ground posture. This produced green ticks in place of the red electricity.
The gentleman concerned seemed to have nothing to sell and was, he said, simply passing on information that had helped him cope with pain from a serious accident.
The message was clear however, sitting at a desk can destroy your body and lead to injury.
Can desk work cause neck and back injuries?
This view isn’t unusual. Desk work gets blamed for a lot. The vast majority of individuals I see for neck and back issues blame their sedentary occupations for their pain.
Let’s take a step back and objectively examine whether sitting down can really injure you.
To do that it’s useful to understand how robust our spines and the discs that separate each vertebrae actually are.
Most of the research in this area has been carried out on the spines of dead sheep and pigs. These are obviously not living humans but the results give us an indication of the forces required to injure these structures.
Let’s take a look at spinal discs in particular. You’ll see injuries to these structures represented by red material oozing out of model spines in the offices of osteopaths up and down the country.
How much force does it take to injure a spinal disc?
This study investigated the effect of adding pressure to ovine (sheep) lumbar spines placed in flexion and rotation. A position the researchers figured would leave the discs more susceptible to rupture.
Pressure was gradually added via a custom made jig until rupture of the disc occurred.
On average it took 11 Megapascals to rupture the disc. That’s equivalent to around 1595 PSI.
To give you some context, a road racing bicycle tyre operates at a pressure of about 95 PSI. And you’ll need a special pump to get it to that. Oh and you’ll feel every stone on the road at that pressure.
In other words 1595 PSI is a lot.
Likewise to actually fracture a vertebrae in the cervical spine you’re looking at about 3000 Newtons, which is the equivalent of a 500 lbs car hitting a wall at 30 mph.
Again, a lot.
It’s not likely you’ll experience anything like these forces whilst sat at your desk is it?
What jobs have the highest prevalence of spinal injuries?
Research into occupational health supports this conclusion. Desk workers are at a low risk of spinal injury compared to jobs that have a physical component.
For example this study revealed a positive association between lumbar disc herniation and lifting objects of more than 11.3 kg more than 25 times per day on average, The amount of time spent sitting did not influence the risk for disc herniation
Likewise this German study found occupations associated with a lower-than-average back pain prevalence are highly qualified professionals, senior management and production occupations. In other words desk workers.
In contrast, an above-average prevalence of back pain was identified in occupations associated with physically strenuous work. Particularly those involving one-sided postures, moving, carrying and holding heavy weights, and work typically performed in poor conditions or bad weather.
So the forces involved with sitting all day are not enough to cause injury and the evidence suggests that jobs with a manual labour component suffer far more pain and injury than desk workers.
So why all the fuss?
Sitting at a desk can cause pain and discomfort
There’s no doubt that sitting at a desk for long periods can cause pain and discomfort. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve injured yourself however. It’s your body’s way of telling you to move.
There’s no need to obsess about ideal postures either. What might be comfortable for one person might lead to pain and discomfort in another. This includes the military parade ground posture that is usually recommended in articles on desk set ups.
The most concerning aspect of posts about desk work and injury is the suggestion that our spines are fragile. They’re not as I hope I’ve explained.
You won’t destroy your body by sitting at a desk. But you will create issues if that’s all you do.
Regular resistance training has been shown to reduce the neck, shoulder and upper back pain that sitting at a desk for long periods of time can cause.
Combine that with occasional movement whilst at your desk and you’ll experience fewer issues.
The biggest influence on your health comes from what you’re doing when you’re not at your desk.
Most of us have to do something for a living and if you think desk work causes issues, the evidence suggests jobs involving movement will create far more problems.
Focus your attention on getting stronger with a regular resistance training programme and you’ll experience fewer issues.