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Is your desk chair giving you back pain?

By Jana Zuidema (Bsc Physio)

Working a desk job may seem like a cushy gig, but how does a desk job affect your health? Sitting for long periods of time is a leading cause of back pain and a host of other ailments including neck pain, shoulder pain, wrist pain and more that all affect your ability to focus and your quality of life.

When it comes to injuries from sitting at a desk all day, 80% of office workers report back pain during their careers, and this is largely due to insufficient back support from their office chair and poor office ergonomics. Fortunately, back pain from office jobs is both preventable and treatable with a few simple workstation practices.

Preventing back pain from sitting

As with many things, prevention is better than cure when it comes to back pain from office chairs, and since 65% of office workers in South Africa spend at least 7 hours of their day in their chair, taking simple steps to minimise the impact of desk work on your body can be hugely beneficial. If your back hurts from sitting at a desk already, these tips will help with pain relief for now and reduce back pain in the long term.

Use an ergonomic office chair

Whether you work from home or go into an office every day, your everyday office chair doesn’t offer the support you need to keep your body in an ergonomic posture, causing many people back pain from desk chairs. This causes you to slouch and put strain on your muscles, joints and spinal discs.

Good posture in workplace settings is made easy when you have an adjustable ergonomic chair guiding your spine as you sit and work. Office chairs designed for back problems follow the natural curve of the spine to ensure support of the lower and upper back while you work and prevent back pain from the desk chair. The best office chairs for low back pain also have adjustable armrests and backrests to fully customise them to the natural shape of your body.

A man sitting at his desk with an ergotherapy office chair that  follows the shape of his spine and gives ergonomic support

Use ergonomic office furniture and ergonomic equipment

Is your workstation ergonomic? A good ergonomic office chair is great for preventing desk job injuries, but there is other ergonomic equipment out there, specifically designed to add extra support and ensure good posture while you work.

A sit-stand desk ensures you get some movement incorporated into your work day and is a helpful posture aid, while accessories like laptop stands, monitor stands, desk chair footrests and desk standing mats complement the ergonomic efforts of a good office chair or desk for holistic, full-body support.

Laptop and monitor stands reduce strain on your neck by ensuring your screen sits at eye level, while footrests helps to keep your legs bent at a 90-degree angle, which is ideal for sitting posture, improved blood flow and reduced back strain.

Read more on ergonomic office setup here.

A woman works at her Ergotherapy Standing Desk Converter

Stay active and stretch regularly

A big contributor to desk job health risks is the sedentary nature of office work. Many office workers can sit for hours without getting up and giving their shoulders, necks, and backs a rest, contributing to back pain from desk chairs.

Movement is key to preventing and treating back pain, so it’s best to have frequent breaks in which you can move and stretch, so go for a walk and stretch your shoulders and neck.

A sit-stand desk is a great way to naturally incorporate some activity into your work routine. Because standing is more active than sitting and working while standing demands good posture, you might find a standing desk is a good fit in your recovery from back pain.

How your desk chair could be causing you back pain

How can sitting at a desk cause back pain? Back pain from desk chairs can affect the upper back, lower back or both.

Upper back pain from a desk job

Upper back pain can manifest as pain that radiates from the upper back into the shoulders, arms, and even wrists. Poor ergonomics and posture can trigger stiffness or muscle spasms, dull aches, or sharp shooting pain in the back and neck, or even limited range of motion. 

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

The thoracic outlet is a hollow just above your first rib and behind your collarbone (clavicle). Some muscles also surround the thoracic outlet. The brachial plexus (a group of nerves) and blood vessels pass through the thoracic outlet from your neck to your arm through the thoracic outlet.

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS) is when these nerves or blood vessels are compressed, causing pain in the arm, shoulder or neck. Symptoms of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome include numbness, weakness and pain in the arm, pins and needles and a sense of cold in the arm and hand.

This unpleasant condition is often caused by an extra rib called a cervical rib. If you have a cervical rib and you adopt a poor posture at work the cervical rib can cause compression on the thoracic outlet and cause painful symptoms.

Thoracic Spine stiffness and kyphosis

Slouching results in a round curve of the spine called kyphosis. Prolonged periods of sitting slouched can cause the thoracic spine to become stiff in a kyphotic position. This can make it difficult to sit up straight as your body has lost the range of movement of thoracic extension.


Lower back pain from a desk job

Lower back pain affects millions of people worldwide, and it is one of the most common injuries caused by desk work. Spending long hours sitting at a desk can strain the muscles, ligaments, and discs in the lower back, leading to continuous or intermittent lower back discomfort, pain, or stiffness. In serious cases, lower back pain can extend into the thighs and buttocks, and cause difficulty walking, weakness, numbness or tingling.

This type of injury can be caused by poor posture, lack of movement, and inadequate support from office chairs. It can also be exacerbated by stress and tension, making it a common problem for those who work in high-pressure environments. If left untreated, lower back pain can significantly impact an individual's quality of life and productivity. So it’s crucial to take preventive measures and seek proper treatment.

Prevent lower back pain by making sure your back comes in contact with the entire back of your desk chair. A desk chair for lower back support will naturally support the curve of your spine, alleviating any strain on the lower portion of your back.

Disc-related problems

Prolonged sitting puts a lot of strain on the lower back, by increasing compression forces through the discs. These compression forces are increased further when sitting slouched. This can lead to a disc injury, which can cause severe lower back and leg pain. 

Muscle spasms

Often people who spend hours at their desks have very weak core muscles. This can result in certain muscles having to do all the work to stabilise the spine. Ideally, the lumbar spine (lower back) should be stabilised by the abdominal muscles (the core) and the back muscles. When the core is weak, the back muscles do all the stabilising work. This can lead to spasms and pain in those muscles. Often the spasm is debilitating and requires time off work. 

Tight hamstring muscles

This might seem odd to add to the lower back section, but the hamstrings affect the lower back significantly. The hamstrings originate from the sitting bones and attach to the back of the knees. Prolonged sitting shortens the hamstring muscles which causes a pull on the pelvis. A backward tilt of the pelvis encourages slouching, and slouching can cause lower back pain. So, tight hamstrings play a role in the cause of lower back pain with prolonged sitting. 

Woman sitting at a desk and leaning forward with her hands on her lower back due to lower back pain

Other common desk job injuries and health risks

Working in an office can affect your health in various ways and there are several common desk job injuries associated with office work.

One of the most common problems from sitting at a desk all day is carpal tunnel syndrome, which is caused by repetitive movements and strain on the wrist. It can result in pain, tingling, and numbness in the hand and fingers.

Another common injury is lower back pain, often caused by poor posture and prolonged sitting. This can lead to chronic discomfort and even more serious conditions.

Other potential injuries include eyestrain from staring at screens, neck and shoulder pain from hunching over a computer, and even stress-related conditions such as tension headaches. Office workers need to be aware of these potential injuries and take preventative measures to avoid them, such as taking breaks to stretch and maintaining good ergonomics at their desk.

Neck pain from desk work

Neck pain is another common injury associated with desk work that significantly hinders focus and reduces quality of life.

Neck (facet) joint problems/pain

Adopting a poking chin posture (as a result of slouching), causes compression of the neck joints, which can cause local pain in the neck and referred pain into the head or shoulders 


A posture in which the chin juts out also causes strain on the upper neck joints. This can cause cervicogenic headaches that can be felt at the base of the skull, on top of the head or around the temporal area to the eye. 

Arm and shoulder pain from desk jobs

Muscle spasms and trigger points

Upper shoulder muscles: When slouching we tend to hunch our shoulders and this puts strain on the upper fibres of trapezius muscles and the levator scapulae muscles. If you are sitting too low for your desk, elevating your shoulders to reach the keyboard causes tension. The muscles then tend to form trigger points (knots) which can be felt on the upper shoulder muscles and into the neck, causing pain and discomfort.

Rhomboid Muscles: The rhomboids run from the shoulder blades to the spine and often develop trigger points (knots) when they are put on a prolonged stretch with slouching.

Rotator cuff syndrome

Our shoulders adopt a protracted position (forward rotated) when working at a computer. This prolonged position puts strain on the rotator cuff complex (the tendons on the top of the shoulder) and can cause a tendonitis (inflammation of the tendon). This can cause pain around the shoulder and affect sleep at night when lying on the affected side.

Front (anterior) shoulder pain

This is often caused by AC-joint dysfunction. The AC joint forms the top of the shoulder and can often be very tender to touch if problematic. AC joint dysfunction can be related to poor postures, i.e. slouching and rolling the shoulders forward. 

Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis)

This can develop from repetitive typing and poor mouse positioning. If your wrists are extended and not in the neutral position, strain is placed on the elbow tendons. Inflammation can then develop in these tendons and cause significant pain. 

Wrist and hand injuries

Repetitive strain injury

Repetitive strain injury is caused by doing one activity over and over again, like typing or moving your mouse. It often develops when poor postures are adopted by the wrists and hands when typing and the wrists are not kept neutral. Repetitive strain injury of the wrist is diagnosed as tendonitis or tenosynovitis. Pain can be felt in the wrists, hands and/or fingers. At its worst, it can also cause numbness.

Carpal tunnel syndrome

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is a common condition affecting the wrist, hand, and even arm causing numbness, tingling, and pain. This can make simple tasks like typing, writing, or even holding objects extremely uncomfortable. If left untreated, carpal tunnel syndrome can lead to further complications and permanent nerve damage.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is often caused by using a mouse all day, so it’s important to take breaks and stretch regularly, as well as use ergonomic equipment to reduce strain on the wrist and hand and prevent Carpal Tunnel Syndrome as much as possible. It is also recommended to switch up your mouse hand and use keyboard shortcuts when possible to give your dominant hand a break.

Fortunately, there are simple stretches that can help alleviate the discomfort and reduce the risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome. Start by stretching your fingers and gently bending your wrists back and forth. You can also try making a fist and then opening your hand as wide as possible.

Torso of a man in a white office shirt, holding one wrist with his other hand due to wrist pain from a desk job.

Knee pain from desk jobs

Knee pain that comes after sitting for a period of time is called anterior knee pain. It can be due to overuse of the knee and pathology in the knee joint or by weak knee stabilising muscles (VMOs). The VMOs are the ‘core’ muscles of the knees and they weaken with inactivity (like inactivity caused by prolonged sitting).

Regular exercise and stretching should prevent knee pain from a desk job, so ensure your incorporate regular movement both throughout your work day and into your lifestyle.

In conclusion: Are desk jobs bad for your health?

As you can see, the body is not designed to sit all day and the effects of a desk job on the body are far-reaching. The lack of movement associated with office work can cause stiffness and tightness in your muscles, making it difficult to maintain good posture. Additionally, staring at a computer screen for hours on end can strain your eyes and lead to headaches. The sedentary nature of desk jobs also puts you at risk for weight gain and other health issues.

It's important to take breaks and incorporate movement into your workday to prevent these strains on your body, but ultimately, using ergonomic equipment in your workspace is key to ensuring your body gets the support it needs to handle hours of sitting.

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