Is Sitting Causing You Back Pain? 6 Harmful Posture Mistakes to Avoid

According to a study published in 2013 by the Mayo Clinic, back pain is the third most common cause of doctor visits in the United States. And according to American Family Physician, only 25 to 30 percent of people seek treatment for their back pain. So if you’re experiencing back pain, you’re not alone. Many back pain sufferers struggle with what’s causing their back pain, not realizing that the eight or more hours they spend sitting could be the main culprit. 

The most common cause of lower back pain is postural stress. For this reason, lower back pain is frequently brought on by sitting too long, prolonged bending, heavy lifting, or even standing or lying down—all for long periods in a poor, rounded back position.

According to Cornell University Department of Ergonomics, up to 90 percent more pressure is put on your back when you sit versus when you stand. There are several reasons why, the first being that if you’re like most Americans, you habitually sit in ways that cause tension and imbalance in your back and neck. This applies to sitting at work, in the car, and at home.

Common Posture Mistakes That Lead to Back Problems

1. You’re looking down at your screen, phone, or desk, and your head tips forward. Your head weighs on average 10 lbs, so any slight angle forward puts a strain on the muscles of your neck and upper back. The further you lean your head forward, and the length of time you keep that straining posture, determines how much extra work your neck and upper back need to do.

2. Your shoulders are rolled forward. Some of the most common causes are: (1) a lack of lumbar support from a chair that’s too soft or one that doesn’t encourage good posture, (2) a muscular imbalance where your pectoral muscles (chest) are stronger than your back muscles (common in men who like to work out their beach muscles more than their back), or  (3) habit. If you’re wondering if you’re guilty of this, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and let your arms hang down at your sides. If your thumb points forward, you’re probably balanced. If your palms are pointing behind you, you probably have an imbalance.

3. You’re leaning forward from your lower back. This posture puts even more pressure on the vertebrae of your lower spine (lumbar area), as it compresses your disks.

4. Your elbows are too far away from your body. The rule in lifting anything is that the more an object weighs, and the further your elbows are away from your torso, the more strain you will put on your shoulders and upper back. Reaching your arms forward to type or write might not seem like much, but doing it eight hours or more per day will take its toll.

5. Your shoulders hold your phone to your ear. Many people multitask and talk on the phone while their hands are doing other things. Doing this for a few seconds isn’t going to cause an imbalance in your body, but anything more that that will cause tension on one side of your neck and upper back.

6. You sit for too long. Dr. Joan Vernikos, former director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division and author of the book Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, explains, “We weren’t designed to sit. The body is a perpetual motion machine.” When you’re sedentary, your muscles get less oxygen and nutrients from your blood.

The rule of thumb is to frequently change your postural positions and take movement micro-breaks for every 30 minutes of sitting throughout the work day. A helpful strategy is to drink lots of water: it keeps you hydrated, which is healthy, and it forces you to get up and move in order to use the bathroom!

Getting Rid of Back Pain

  1. Yoga: Yoga can be a very effective way of preventing and treating back pain from sitting. Bear in mind that some poses can provoke areas of pain, so be mindful of which positions you can tolerate and work up to new positions as your body allows. Yoga is a very low-risk activity to try. Many studios will offer free first classes or a very low promotional price to get started. If you’re suffering from back or neck pain caused by sitting, there’s no excuse for not giving yoga a try. 

  2. Pilates: Pilates has shown to help back and neck pain, especially certain types of exercises. While many other forms of physical activity can magnify body pain, Pilates is a great choice for those currently suffering or those wishing to avoid pain risk. Pilates also offers a path to burning calories and losing weight that may not be accessible for those of us that are suffering from back pain. Pilates has gained tremendous popularity in the last 15 years, so you should have no problem finding a local teacher who can help you get started. 

  3. Tai Chi: While many martial arts are very healthy activities, Tai Chi has developed a reputation for its extensive health benefits for the mind and heart, and for energy levels. Tai Chi has also gained popularity for helping reduce neck and back pain as well as simply getting you into shape. Tai Chi has become very popular, so if you’re looking to try it there are likely local options for beginners where you live.

  4. Massage: Massage therapy is another great way to help alleviate pain. While this is more of a luxury approach, a monthly massage can be affordable and effective. There are many types of massage options, so be sure to consider the type of pain and its location when you’re researching practitioners, and find out which type of massage can best address that area. 

  5. Go to a Chiropractor: Finding a good chiropractor can be the key to alleviating your pain. Chiropractors are trained in musculoskeletal manipulation and can identify the cause of your pain and specifically treat areas of pain with specialized procedures. They can also advise you on managing your pain in your day-to-day life and suggest other activities that may help.

Reprinted with permission from

Dr. RJ Burr received his Doctor of Chiropractic Degree from the National University of Health Sciences (NUHS) and has accrued more than 700 hours of post-graduate work with an emphasis on manual therapy, rehabilitation, biomechanics, nutrition and movement restoration. He’s earned certifications in Active Release Techniques (ART) and Titleist Performance Institute (TPI) medical track, and can sit for the American Chiropractic Rehab Board Diplomate (DACRB) and Certification in Mechanical Diagnosis & Therapy (McKenzie). RJ owns and operates Reach Rehab + Chiropractic Performance Center out of Plymouth, Michigan.


Reference: McKenzie, Robin (2001) 7 Steps to a Pain-Free Life: How to Rapidly Relieve Back and Neck Pain. New York, New York: Penguin Group.

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