Back Pain While Twisting? Here's Why (And How to Stop It)
Here's why twisting in your chair... at your desk... or anywhere else can cause chronic lower back pain. Plus, one back-friendly alternative that most people miss.
Here's a quick story to set the stage:
Stretching from northern California to British Columbia is a 620-mile fault known as the Cascadia subduction zone.
Scientists believe it has the power to unleash a level 9.0 earthquake, which could rattle Seattle… Portland… and send a 100-foot tsunami racing through the ocean. And new research in the journal of Science Advances has been trying to predict when this massive earthquake may occur. Researchers have discovered that parts of the subduction zone are slowly moving on a regular basis. This slow slipping is too subtle to notice but each time it happens it has the potential to build more… and more… pressure which could eventually trigger a devastating earthquake.
The lower back is very similar.
Each day most people move in harmful ways that are causing little, hardly noticeable disruptions in the spine. However, they can build up to a bigger, more devastating injury over time.
Think about the twisting a tractor driver has to go through to look behind him. Or the constant rotation a secretary goes through on a daily basis. Something as simple as this twisting in your chair can eventually lead to bigger problems in the spine.
In fact, here’s what the research says:
Studies published in Occupational Environmental Medicine and Spine have found lower back pain is connected to jobs involving rotating at the spine (known as trunk rotation).
In addition, research in the European Spine Journal and International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health has shown trunk rotation increases your risk of lower back pain by 1.51-2.28x!
Plus, this trunk rotation is linked not just to lower back pain but chronic low back pain.
So here’s how your repetitive twisting can cause silent damage to the spine:
Why Back Pain While Twisting Happens
First, when you’re sitting the lumbar spine is stressed differently.
Most people think standing is more stressful than sitting but that’s not the case when you look at what happens at the spine. According to research by Stuart McGill and Jack Callaghan, when you are sitting, the compressive loads on the lumbar spine significantly increase compared to standing.
Also, when you sit it increases the stress on the discs between the vertebrae. That’s because when people sit they tend to flatten or even round the lower back creating extra pressure on the discs.
When you maintain good posture and keep a natural arch of the spine, this decreases the pressure on the discs. But even so, the pressure is still higher sitting than when standing. And that’s why pro-longed sitting is a high risk factor for low back pain.
Second, the lumbar spine rotates more.
According to research by Pearcy, when you sit, the supporting tissues of the spine relax and allow greater rotation at the lumbar spine. That means you have some extra mobility making it easier for you to spin around in your chair to grab your phone… reach the counter… or dig into a drawer. At first, greater rotation doesn’t sound like a bad thing, but more motion in this part of the spine tends to create more problems.
In fact, a 2017 study published in PLOS One found that people with chronic lower back pain have hyper rotational mobility of the spine. The reason: the lumbar spine is not meant for excessive range of motion. The lumbar spine is meant for 13 degrees of rotation while the thoracic spine (middle of the spine) is meant for 24 degrees.
But it’s activities like rotating at a desk that can create excessive rotation at the lumbar spine. According to world-renown physical therapist Shirley Sahrmann:
“Based on clinical observations, one of the greatest contributors to excessive rotation of the lumbar spine is repetitive rotational motion while sitting at a desk. Many individuals rotate the trunk to get a computer, to answer the telephone, to open file drawers, or to reach an adjacent counter. In the sitting position the lumbosacral junction is most vulnerable to repeated stretching by the rotational activities.”
And it’s the lower segments (L4-L5) of the lumbar spine that are especially vulnerable. Once again Sahrmann states:
“Approximately 90% of herniated disks occur at the L4-L5… probably because the greatest amount of motion occurs at these segments. The greatest degree of rotation occurs at L5-S1, and therefore this level is probably more susceptible to excessive rotation than other lumbar vertebral segments.”
So If You Shouldn't Twist, What Should You Do?
#1: Identify the rotation that you are currently doing.
What direction do you tend to rotate when you are sitting at your desk? If you are always rotating to the left, try to rearrange so you are not constantly twisting in that direction.
#2: Focus on rotating your entire body.
Not your hips. Not your waist. Rotating from the chest is better because it requires rotation from the thoracic spine. But even this can get repetitive over time as well. Instead focus on rotating your entire body in your chair whenever possible.
Sure, you may not feel the difference. It may just seem unnatural at first.
But it may be just one simple thing that stops a larger, more devastating low back problem from building up later on.