Sedentary Lifestyle Affects Chronic Lower Back Pain


For patients suffering from chronic pain, it can seem like there is no end in sight to relieving symptoms. Many chronic back pain patients assume that their onset of pain is linked to injury, old age, or just occurred out of nowhere. However, one of the main causes is doing nothing at all. That’s right, a sedentary lifestyle could, in fact, be either triggering or aggravating lower back pain.

What Is a Sedentary Lifestyle?

A sedentary lifestyle can be defined as a daily routine or lifestyle that involves little inactivity or exercise.

This may include anything from the general notion of a “couch potato” to a typical American nine-to-five job that involves sitting at a desk for prolonged periods of time. Sedentary lifestyles are often coupled with inactivity, little to no weekly exercise routines, and even poor diet and obesity, all of which have been found to contribute to the severity and intensity of lower back pain.

Inactivity and Back Pain

One of the more difficult aspects of chronic lower back pain is the inherent decrease in activity. For patients suffering from chronic lower back pain, it makes exercise or even simple daily activities and chores extremely difficult and painful.

The fear of pain that many patients experience at the thought of performing an activity that they know will trigger pain prevents many suffering patients from even attempting the activity at all. Cutting back on physical activity may prevent the pain initially, but what many patients do not realize is the decreased use of these muscles may actually contribute to more chronic pain in the future.

This situation is a prime example of the Disuse Syndrome, which is defined as a condition that results in the gradual deterioration of muscles that are not used over an extended period of time. As a result, muscle deterioration causes decreased muscle mass and strength, which causes more of an impact on the bones and nerves in the surrounding areas when those muscles are eventually used.

What this means for chronic back patients is that the less they use their lower back muscles out of fear of pain, the more likely they are to experience chronic pain in the future that may be magnified due to muscular deterioration.

Sedentary Lifestyle Can Increase Pain

As mentioned above, inactivity and lack of exercise can actually worsen lower back pain, even though the initial strategy behind inactivity for most patients is pain avoidance. However, a sedentary lifestyle resulting from inactivity or even prolonged sitting habits in a work environment can result in worsening of back pain.

Daily physical activity is necessary for the body for many reasons. Besides preventing muscular weakening and deterioration, exercise nourishes spinal discs, ligaments, and tissues, and a lack of exercise leads to degeneration of these important body elements; especially in the lower back and spinal column, discs and cartilage are vital to maintaining the integrity of the spine and muscular system of the lower back, and a deterioration of these can lead to increased lower back pain.

Although many chronic pain patients do attempt to exercise weekly, it is, in fact, their daily jobs that may be causing their sedentary lifestyle.

Sitting for more than eight hours at a desk is also considered a sedentary lifestyle, although many people do not realize this. While it may be difficult to avoid sitting in today’s current technological and office-based employment force, easy fixes such as adjusting chair height and fixing posture could greatly increase lower back pain symptoms and pain levels. Slouching and sitting too far forward can overstretch spinal ligaments and strain the cartilage in the spinal column, all of which can contribute to worsening symptoms of lower back pain.

Obesity and Weight

For patients leading a sedentary lifestyle, weight gain can be an inevitable and unwanted side effect.

This incorporated with inactivity, lack of exercise and poor diet habits can result in obesity, a condition that aggravates existing lower back pain and can even trigger it in patients who previously did not suffer from it. For patients who have increased weight in their mid-abdominal section (a beer-belly), this weight puts extra strain on the pelvis and actually pulls it forward, which places even more stress on the lower back muscles and lumbar spine. This compensation of the extra weight by the lower back muscles can manifest in a herniated disc or pinched nerve, which can lead to sciatica.

How to Fix a Sedentary Lifestyle

While it seems obvious that prevention of a sedentary lifestyle involves movement and exercise, the fear and threat of pain are very real in many chronic pain patients. For many, the solution cannot be to simply ignore the pain and enroll in an intense weekly workout regimen; it is simply not practical for their level of pain that they experience. However, there are other things that can be done to alleviate the risk of inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle.

First and foremost, health care professionals recommend continuing performing all daily activities possible. This includes chores, gardening, driving, cleaning, walking the dog, anything that the patient would normally be able to do. While some may experience pain symptoms from some of these exercises, it is recommended to perform as many as possible to maintain normality in a patient’s daily routine.

At work, adjust chair heights at desks, consider purchasing chair cushions or supports, maintain good posture while working, and take frequent breaks to walk around and stretch. For patients who are able, enroll in a simple, regular exercise program that should include stretching, low-impact aerobic exercises such as walking, and lower back and abdominal muscle strengthening.

Finally, maintain a proper diet and avoid processed foods high in carbohydrates and fats when possible to prevent weight gain and obesity. These easy changes in lifestyle and daily routine may result in a significant decrease in lower back pain and hopefully, create a more manageable pain situation for chronic back pain patients.

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