Sitting at a desk all day may seem like a low risk activity that’s not likely to cause physical problems, but this isn’t the case. In fact, a high proportion of desk workers have work related muscle pain and discomfort. Sitting in the same position all day can lead to muscle imbalances, posture changes and muscle tension.
When all our muscles have the right balance of strength and flexibility, we have good posture and the stress on joints is at a minimum. Over time, desk work can cause postural changes, with some muscles becoming over-tight and becoming weak. This causes a range of joint and muscle issues.
For example, leaning over your desk can cause muscles in your back which hold your shoulder blades in place to become weak and stretched, while your chest muscles become tight. This can lead to two problems: firstly, the weakness in the back muscles makes them susceptible to injury if you do any lifting or carrying. Secondly, even when you get up from your desk you will find it hard to stand with your shoulders back. If you can’t hold your shoulders back then your head will be facing slightly down towards the floor, which means tilting it back (extending your neck) just to be able to see where you’re going! Although you may not be aware you are having to do this, you are causing unnecessary stress on the spinal structures of your neck. It’s also likely to lead to muscle tension and muscle fibre adhesions (“knots”) which may cause pain and headaches.
It isn’t only the upper body posture that suffers; people who sit for long periods tend to slump around the middle, causing imbalances in the muscles which stabilise the pelvis and support the lower back. This can both lead to lower back aches and, as with the upper back, increased risk of injury when lifting or carrying.
Another common area of tension is the hamstring muscles at the back of the legs. The hamstrings carry out the action of flexing the knees, so in a sitting position they are partially contracted. Over time, this results in them becoming shortened. “Tight” hamstrings restrict movement, affect posture and are susceptible to injury.
Sometimes, especially if we’re stressed or anxious, it can be hard to let muscles relax properly. We tend to hold them in a slightly contracted state. This is especially common in the muscles of the shoulders and neck. Shoulder and neck tension causes pain and discomfort and can lead to tension headaches. Continuous tension may also lead to muscle adhesions which cause even more pain. Adhesion don’t generally just go away – one of the main benefits of massage is that it breaks down adhesions.
What you can do about it
Have good posture at your desk
This is easier said than done of course. You may have already developed bad posture and muscle imbalances and so sitting with good posture takes effort. And if your work is stressful, or you need to concentrate, it’s easy to forget about your posture. It will take time to get into better habits and correct posture changes. Things to focus on:
- Keep your shoulders down and pulled back.
- Don’t slump around your middle – keep your core muscles engaged.
- If you’re using a screen, make sure it’s at a comfortable level and you don’t have to flex or extend your neck.
- If you’re doing paperwork, you will have to look down at your desk, so make sure you take frequent breaks to give your neck muscles a rest.
- Avoid crossing one leg on top of the other – it encourages you to slump.
- Also avoid having your feet under your chair with your heels raised – your calves are contracted in this position and will become shortened. Have your feet flat on the floor.
Exercise and stretch
Having a regular exercise program will help to maintain your joint mobility and muscle length. Ideally, to offset the effects of sitting for long periods, you should do something where you’re in an upright position, like walking, running, training with free weights or dance based exercise.
Stretching your muscles regularly helps to maintain good muscle balance. For desk workers, stretching the chest and hamstring muscles is especially good.
Massage releases muscle tension, as well as breaking down adhesions. If you do desk work, regular massage will help your muscles stay relaxed and also help you to maintain good posture.