After spending countless hours poring over the specs on the best ergonomic chairs you can afford, your dream chair finally arrives at your door.
You excitedly assemble it and place it in its sacred spot at the desk. Eagerly, you sit down, make all the necessary adjustments, and get to work.
But something’s wrong. After several hours, there is an ache in your lower back. After fiddling with the lumbar support a bit more, you get back to work. By the end of the day, the pain is worse. What went wrong? Ergonomic chairs are supposed to prevent back pain, not make it worse.
Why is the lumbar support hurting your back?
To answer this question, we will examine the mechanics of sitting, why an ergonomic chair and lumbar support can cause pain, and how to properly position your body and the lumbar support to prevent further damage. Finally, we will go over simple tips to avoid back discomfort and stay healthy.
By the end, you will have a greater understanding of body mechanics and how to properly use lumbar support with proper posture. You’ll also learn easy ways to keep your body relaxed and healthy throughout the workday.
Note: this discussion is based on my research and personal opinion, but I’m not a medical specialist. If you’re experiencing any significant pain, please consult someone who is!
What’s wrong with sitting?
As most of us know, sitting for long periods of time with incorrect posture can cause pain and damage to the spine .
First, let’s define good posture.
Correct posture is when each body part is in alignment with each other. They are balanced and supported without any strain .
Unfortunately, our modern lifestyle and habits often result in poor posture that can cause discomfort.
Many people slouch forward and hunch over, which can result in neck and shoulder pain. Tilting the head and shoulders forward may pull the spine out of alignment and stretch the ligaments running from top to bottom.
Another common problem is leaning slightly back with your pelvis tipped backwards and rolled forward under you instead of it sitting directly under the spine.
When that happens, the pelvis acts as a lever that bends the lower spine forward and straightens out the natural curve of the lumbar region. Then, the pelvis puts pressure on the spinal discs and stretches the surrounding ligaments, resulting in compressed discs and stretched ligaments that are prone to injury when lifting and twisting.
Below are three common back conditions that may be exacerbated by poor posture while sitting:
- Chronic backache  – A dull ache that comes from tense and overworked muscles or ligaments, also known as lumbago . This is the most common complaint among workers, and lower back pain is the No. 1 reason for disability around the world .
- Mechanical back pain  – A sudden, sharp pain that occurs while bending, lifting or twisting. It happens when too much stress is put on spinal muscles and often results from incorrectly bending and lifting. If the muscles are already weakened from poor sitting posture, they are at higher risk. The sharp pain is a quick warning to stop your motion.
- Slipped or herniated discs  – A more serious condition where the soft inner part of the spinal disc squeezes out past the tougher exterior shell. It can result from injury or weakness caused by bad posture. This can be extremely painful and may affect the nerves.
Why does my ergonomic chair hurt my back?
An ergonomic chair is meant to conform to your body and keep it comfortable and healthy. If you find yourself uncomfortable, it’s most likely because the design is not suitable for you.
In the case of lumbar support, the adjustability can vary greatly from chair to chair.
Some can move up and down. Others move in and out. Still others are able to adjust both ways.
Then there are the backrests that are made of materials that naturally support and flex with your body without any manual adjustments, such as the Herman Miller Bowery or Sayl.
Some people find that adjustable lumbar pads don’t have the necessary range. Fixed support systems that don’t go up and down can be very uncomfortable if it hits the wrong part of the spine.
The pads can also be hard or too small, so that when moved forward to the lumbar region, users feel like they are being poked in the back.
Is lumbar support bad for my back?
Lumbar support is bad for you if it causes more harm than good. Usually that occurs due to a lack of adjustability, poor positioning, and bad pelvic posture. The goal of lumbar support is to push the lower spine back into its natural, curved shape. However, many are too high to support the pelvis.
If the pelvis still tips backward beneath the lumbar support, all the distortion and strain is concentrated on the spinal area below the lumbar pad. The lowest two discs are the most vulnerable and poorly placed lumbar support systems can increase the risk of injury.
What makes lumbar support feel good?
When your back is strained or injured, the surrounding muscles tense up to protect the damaged area. Those muscles, which are designed for occasional activities like lifting, become sore from the constant tension. This often results in the dull, nagging ache that characterizes chronic lower back pain.
Lumbar support takes the burden off of those muscles and provides some relief, but the root problem is the original injury. If that injury was caused by poor posture and a tilted pelvis, that may be what needs correction.
What is the best position for lumbar support?
The lumbar support should be positioned at the belt line and then adjusted to your comfort.
Check out this video for some handy tips on getting the position right:
To most benefit from it and avoid any extra strain, be sure to push your pelvis all the way to the back of your chair. If the lumbar support is too high, it will push your back forward and cause you to slouch.
How do I sit in a healthy position?
Comfortable distance from desk
Avoid straining your back by sitting close enough to the keyboard and mouse. Overreaching, even a small amount, causes tension in the spinal muscles.
If you can’t move your chair close enough due to the armrests, you may need one with flip-up armrests or none at all.
Proper height of chair
Ideally, your thighs and knees should be level with or slightly below your hips, and your feet should rest flat on the ground. Petite people may need a small stool under their feet if the chair doesn’t go down low enough.
Proper lumbar support
Make sure that the lumbar support hits low on your back and will adjust to a comfortable position, whether manually or automatically. If there is no built-in support, a throw pillow can work. Some people find that a small pillow on top of the built-in support works well too.
As mentioned above, you must sit all the way back in your chair to ensure proper pelvis position. The goal is to prevent the pelvis from rotating back and distorting the lower spine.
Instead of sitting with your back ramrod-straight in a 90-degree position, try tilting back to the recommended 100 or 110 degrees. Some people suggest 135 degrees to relieve pressure on spinal discs.
Tips to avoid back pain
If you spend the majority of your day in a sitting position, try stretching before beginning work. A quick stretch every 30 to 60 minutes while working will go a long way to improving circulation and keeping muscles relaxed. It can be as simple as a back bend or touching your toes.
Don’t cross your legs
When you cross your legs, you put extra pressure on your pelvis and lower back. Over time, the stress can cause chronic pain. Keep your legs straight and both feet on the floor.
Don’t cradle your phone
Cradling the phone between your cheek and shoulder strains the neck and upper back. Fortunately, with the rise of speakerphones, earbuds, and headsets, this isn’t as common and is easy to remedy.
Breathe from your diaphragm
When sitting, especially in a hunched position, it’s easy to take very shallow breaths that don’t give our brains and bodies the oxygen they need. Take a moment to consciously breathe through your diaphragm, sucking your navel in when inhaling and relaxing your upper body.
When used correctly, lumbar support can promote spinal health and is a key part of ergonomic chairs. However, it can be frustrating to buy a quality chair with lumbar support and discover that it makes you more uncomfortable.
If you suffer from back pain while using your ergonomic chair, make sure that the support system is in the proper position and that your pelvis is all the way back in the chair. Even if you have the best lumbar support available, it won’t save you from the harmful results of poor pelvic posture.
To stay healthy and relaxed, practice the four tips above every day. By making a few simple changes, you can give your body the support it needs to keep up with your busy schedule.