Are Ergonomic Chairs Bad for Your Back?

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With all the talk about ergonomics, there seems to be no going back from the trend. There are ergonomic chairs galore: some with arms, some without; some made with fabric, and others with mesh. 

You will find ergonomic drafting chairs and still, others are called ergonomic active chairs. 

Most seem to brag about the lumbar support they have to offer, whether built-in or adjustable. 

Unfortunately, some users develop a negative view of ergonomics after failing to experience the comfort they were promised. 

Is there a plausible explanation for this apparent inconsistency? Let us examine the facts to see whether or not ergonomic chairs can be bad for your back.

It Might Take Some Getting Used To

As is true for every other area in life, when it comes to testing out a new chair, it will take time to get used to. This is especially true if you are switching from a traditional office chair to one with ergonomic features like lumbar support.

When you’re used to an office chair with a flat backrest, a backrest with built-in curves will probably not seem comfortable at first. 

When you add to that the possible sentiments you attach to your previous chair, there might even be a psychological block towards accepting a new chair. The discomfort could be both real and perceived!

If we also consider that the formation of a new habit can take up to sixty-six days [1], 

you might need to give yourself some more time to get comfortable with a new ergonomic chair.

How to Make the Transition Easier

Although you may have to wait up to six weeks to get used to a new chair, there are some things you can do to make the transition easier.

Because ergonomic chairs typically have multiple adjustable features, you can fine-tune many details to your comfort. Depending on the brand, most ergonomic office chairs can be customized just the way you like.

Here are some of the popular ways to adjust a new ergonomic chair and improve your chances of breaking it in sooner.

Adjust the Seat Height

The height for your office chair should be set to enable both feet to be flat on the floor. Your knees should generally also be at a 90-degree angle. In this way, your knees will be at the same level as, or slightly below, your hips.

If your seat is set too low, it puts more pressure on your hips and may cause back discomfort. 

An angle greater than 90 degrees at your knees means the chair seat is too high and your feet will be left hanging. This can result in numbness and poor circulation in the thighs for some.

Several options are available for accurately adjusting seat height:

  1. While standing in front of your office chair with the seat facing you, adjust the height until the seat is just below your kneecaps.
  2. While looking directly at your computer screen, and with your back straight, adjust the seat height until the screen is directly in front of your face, and your feet are on the floor.

Maximise the Tilt Lock

Another helpful feature your ergonomic chair might have is a tilt lock. It allows you to recline your chair in a way that may reduce the load on your spine. 

This can improve your comfort level while you get used to the feeling of lumbar support. Tilt lock also allows the angle between the upper body and hips to be increased. This helps take the pressure off your hips while you work, enhancing your comfort.

The standard recommendation for an office chair reclining angle is around 110 degrees. This puts the least pressure on the pelvis. 

Some chairs also come with a tilt-limiter that allows you to set how far back you want your chair to go then lock it in that setting. Making the most of the tilt features will help ease you into better long-term comfort even if your lumbar support is an initial challenge.

Find the Right Lumbar Depth

Part of the good news about your chair’s lumbar support is it might be adjustable. 

Instead of just having a stationary curve in your new chair’s backrest, you might see a piece of plastic behind it. This is an adjustable lumbar support that you can slide up and down until it is in perfect alignment with your lumbar curve. 

Make sure it is in close contact with your lower back, and that it is providing proper support. 

You might also benefit from testing different ergonomic office chairs with varying degrees of lumbar support. Remember your body is unique, and what others find helpful may not be comfortable for you.

Other Helpful Adjustments 

While you are working yourself into the experience of lumbar support, you can also make changes in the armrests and headrest, if they are present and if they are adjustable. 

Adjusting the armrests should involve bringing them to a height that matches the height of your bent elbow and also equalizing the height on both sides.

If your chair has a headrest, make sure it doesn’t feel like your head is being pushed down or forward, but rather supported at the base.

To see some of these chair adjustments in action, as well as other options normally available, check out this video: 

Are There Some Brands You Should Avoid?

There are individuals who report having back pain persist or even start with their use of ergonomic chairs. Some have mentioned even top brand names like the Aeron Miller Classic. No ergonomic chair brand is spared from the complaints lodged against lumbar support. 

In fact, in a study conducted by The Human Performance Institute at Western Michigan University (WMU), approximately 70 percent of the 125 participants chose asymmetrical low back support that was at least 20 percent greater on one side versus the other [2]. 

They also found that nearly 1 out of 4 participants self-selected support on one side which was at least twice that of the other side. 

Translation? Many of us may not be getting the lumbar support we need because there is no ergonomic chair currently on the market that allows asymmetric lumbar support adjustment.

In other words, most ergonomic chairs only allow for a single piece of plastic that moves up or down. The WMU study suggests that our spines are not equal on either side and that each side of our lower back needs its own different lumbar support. Talk about fine-tuning!

Given the ergonomic chairs we have at our disposal though, back discomfort can be improved by properly adjusting your chair to suit your body. 

External lumbar pillows can also be used to find the perfect comfort point. Remember, ergonomics should allow your tool to fit you, and not the other way around. If you have to be contorting your body to fit a chair, then that defeats the purpose. 

Final Thoughts

Lumbar support can help ease lower back pain and provide your posture with greater support. Doing so can make you feel uncomfortable at first, especially if you aren’t used to it. 

If that’s the case, make sure you have the right seat height. You can even choose a chair whose lumbar support isn’t so pronounced if your back is flatter than others’. 

If you take all these steps, you will be able to enjoy the benefits of an ergonomic chair more fully.