A Reader Asks About Sitting At The Computer

Posted on: Wed, 02/09/2011 - 2:28pm By: Alice

A reader asks:

Will sitting at a computer all day and leaning to one side cause poor posture and ultimately pain?  Linda 

Absolutely! A large percentage of my clients have postural and pain problems caused or aggravated by sitting in front of the computer for long hours. This bane of modern life can lead to lower back pain, upper back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, and pain in the arms, including carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS).

Sitting itself can cause poor posture when it is done repeatedly for long hours. When we sit, the curve in our lower back tends to flatten our and this forces the head forward. Head forward posture is a very common problem in our sedentary society. When the head is moved forward, it's tendency is to look down. However, we don't usually want to look at the floor so we tilt the head upward. This creates a state of chronic tension in the muscles at the base of the skull. One way to minimize this problem is to use a small pillow to support and maintain the curve of the low back.

The muscles of the upper back and the neck become strained as they work to hold up the head. When we are erect and well balanced, it takes little effort for our muscles to keep our head supported. However, when we lean our head forward, the muscles have to strain to support the head. Imagine a bowling ball (the head) attached to a short stick (the neck). If the stick were held perfectly vertical, it would not take a lot of effort to support it. If you tilted the stick at an angle, however, it would suddenly feel very, very heavy and would take a lot of effort to support it. This is what happens to the muscles in the upper back and the neck when we sit or stand in a head forward posture.

The flattening of the curve in the low back when sitting creates a strain in the muscles of the low back. If the work station is set up so that you must lean or turn to one side, the muscles are in a constant state of imbalance. This can create its own short term strain and, over time, create postural imbalances that will continue to exist even when you are not sitting at the computer. The more time we spend in such a state, the more deeply ingrained these neuromuscular patterns become and the more difficult they are to correct. So, it is wise to identify and correct these patterns promptly.

Long hours at the computer can also lead to pain problems in the shoulders and the arms. The shoulders tend to become hunched forward. The muscles in the forearms can become strained from hours of nonstop typing. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and other pain problems can develop. It is important to maintain good body mechanics, take breaks, stretch, and get exercise in order to keep our muscles in good working order.

Computers are wonderful for all the things that they allow us to do but they have become a new source for pain problems in modern life. Massage therapy can help to alleviate some of this pain by soothing the muscles, reducing and eliminating trigger points created through long hours at the computer, and helping to foster more body awareness so that the individual can more easily correct poor postural habits.

Thanks for asking!

Do you feel that shoulder pain can contribute to, or even be the sole cause of, neck pain?

I definitely think that sitting at the computer can create neck pain. Whether the pain is originating in the shoulder or outside of the shoulder would depend. The trapezius muscle is attached at the base of the skull, the tip of the shoulder,  and along the spine. If it is strained, it can cause pain in both the neck and the shoulder. Also, muscles of the shoulder not directly connected with the neck may radiaate pain into the neck. I often think of the area from the base of the skull to the shoulder to the spine as the "Bermuda triangle" of the body. It is a common area of pain and often pain in the shoulder is accompanied by pain in the neck, or vice versa, stemming from a common problem of sitting immobile for a long period of time in a posture that strains the muscles of the entire region.

Movement helps our muscles feel better. Improving posture while sitting and taking frequent movement breaks can help the muscles feel better.