Posture perfect

By Heather Camlot

As the workday wears on, do you find yourself incredibly fatigued, restless and sore all over?

Blame it on poor posture.

Those of us who work at computers all-day long tend to hunch our shoulders forward and round our backs, putting stress on the front part of our spinal disks. “This is the most dangerous direction because then the contents of the disks rest backwards, causing either bulging disks or herniated disks,” explains Esther Gokhale, posture expert, pain specialist and author of 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back.  “You may also be compressing nerve roots, which can lead to pain anywhere along the distribution of those nerves.”

Seated woman stretching her backTake the hint

Many of us, when we feel ourselves slouching or experiencing back pain, tend to correct ourselves by straightening up, but Gokhale says that’s as much of a problem as slumping because now we’re tightening up the muscles in our low backs and causing a different kind of damage. Muscles become chronically tense, inhibiting blood circulation to the area. And with extra-tight muscles, everything in the area gets squished, including the nerves and disks, which can lead to soreness, tension, rigidity, as well as spinal stenosis (the narrowing of the spinal canal, compressing the spinal cord and nerves) and degenerative disk disease. We should be taking the pain as a hint and fixing it, but we don’t. “People try to shut the signal off with pain meds or injections if it gets bad enough. And then the damage continues until someday it’s gone too far and you’re looking at surgery and other extreme interventions.”

Don’t blame the office chair

While the field of ergonomics has come a long way, Gokhale says it has been very focused on good furniture and weak on directing people how to sit property. “An employer is supposed to supply the furniture that is supposed to magically solve all the problems. But the responsibility should be shared equally by the employer and the employee, by the furniture and the person who’s sitting on it,” she explains.

While it’s important to have supportive furniture, we need to learn to sit with a J-shaped spine and to have a “ducky butt, not a tucky butt,” in which we sit with our imaginary tails behind us rather than under us.

Learn to work pain-free

To reduce stress on the spine and sit more comfortably, Gokhale suggests the following:

  • Elongate the spine with stretchsitting: roll a towel and place it at mid-back level on a chair’s backrest. Sit down in the chair with your behind out, tilt the ribcage forward, grasp the chair with both hands and push downwards. Hinge backwards until you reach the backrest.
  • Straighten hunched shoulders with shoulder rolls:  Bring one shoulder forward, upward and then backward while moving the rest of the body as little as possible. Then, slide the shoulder blade down along the spine. Repeat on the other side.

“So many of us have gotten so used to being uncomfortable all the time,” explains Gokhale. Once you have a baseline of being comfortable, your body gives you signals about what you need to do. The whole machine becomes better and better tuned to give you better feedback.”

First published October 25, 2010, on


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