How I Fixed My Aching Back

By Bronwyn Best

Chronic lower back pain can result from working in a desk job for any extended period. In some jobs, you might be up and down a lot, walking between buildings or doing work in the community. When you begin sitting for the majority of your work day, your back can begin to hurt – and hurt a lot. This pain can consume you. This is what happened to me, and it required taking a stand to heal my aching back. First, I went to a physical therapist, an acupuncturist, an osteopath and several massage therapists, but nothing seemed to offer a permanent solution.

The pain wasn’t always the same. Sometimes it was more my hip, sometimes it was on one side of my lower back (lumbar area), sometimes it ran all the way across. But the pain was constant. I knew something had to change. Since I was already a yoga practitioner and maintained a healthy weight, I suspected it was the new work “lifestyle” that was getting to me.

There has been a lot in the news the last few years about the dangers of sitting. But what can you do if you’re stuck in a desk job? Well, here are a few things to try. I’ve done all of these and the result has been a healthy back.

  • A standing desk: This is a good solution and is inexpensive and easy to accomplish in many office scenarios. Before making elaborate plans, I made a standing desk by stacking cardboard boxes on my desk, different levels for my computer monitor and my keyboard. Standing up definitely helped my back. It didn’t solve all my problems, but it was much better than sitting all day. You can buy standing desk arrangements; you can also get easy instructions from a number of websites. But a cardboard box is just as good as anything, in my opinion!
  • A balance ball, or yoga ball: These inexpensive, inflatable balls are a great invention. You can use it to sit on, but it’s great for stretching throughout the day. Lie on your back on the ball, giving your spine a lovely stretch. This is a really relaxing position. Also, lie on your side, alternating sides, to give your spine a stretch to the side. This is also really relaxing and feels great on the hip, too. You can get a balance ball from Gaiam, among other places. They even make a chair frame for the ball that’s a nice accompaniment.
  • A gravity inversion table: I bought one of these after trying one at my massage therapist’s house. I fell in love with it right away. An inversion table is just that – a table you lie on and then tilt so that your head is lower than your feet. This takes pressure off your spine. It feels amazing! You can get inexpensive inversion tables, or pricey ones. I have a mid-range table made by IronMan. I love it. My whole family uses it. My favorite time to invert is after a workout. It’s very meditative and makes my back and neck feel great. Check out inversion tables made by IronMan, Body Champ and Body Flex and choose one that’s right for you.
  • A foam roller: Foam rollers or cylinders are often sold as yoga props. They are inexpensive and easy to find at Wal-Mart, Target or online from Gaiam, etc. Lying over the cylinder for a stretch feels lovely. Lying on the ground, position the cylinder across your lower back and then roll up and down. Then, turn it to lie along your spine, lengthwise, and allow your arms to flop out on either side. This position feels great. It allows the chest muscles to open up and relax in a way that’s hard to achieve any other way.
  • A treadmill desk: This is now my favorite thing on Planet Earth. After much research and consideration of my back problems (and issues of fatigue, post-lunch dip at work, etc.), I came upon the concept of using a treadmill desk. Right away, I knew this was going to be an important part of my personal health plan. A treadmill desk is a desk set-up that sits over a treadmill, so you work, type, make phone calls, etc., while you walk. This is a relatively new concept, but one that has really caught on and is getting a lot of media attention. You can purchase a treadmill desk from companies like SteelCase, Lifestyle Fitness and TrekDesk. When I was looking at these machines and trying to figure out how to get permission to bring a treadmill desk to my office, I corresponded with several of these companies by email. TrekDesk, in particular, was really informative and helpful to me. If I had a somewhat larger budget, I would have purchased one of these all-in-one set-ups.

I ended up purchasing a sturdy, midline Nordic Track treadmill from Sears. Incidentally, I was able to apply for a Sears card and purchase the treadmill interest-free (for a year). This made paying it off pretty easy, particularly considering how much I was spending on a chiropractor, massage therapist and acupuncturist for my back problems. I haven’t been back to the chiropractor or the acupuncturist since getting my treadmill!

The Nordic Track treadmill has a really nice cushion system, so it’s quiet. It has a simple console and arms that are perpendicular to the floor. Arm position was important, since I planned to use a simple board, secured across the treadmill’s arms, as my “desk”.

Once I got my desk set up (which didn’t take long, basically just banging boards together on my back porch), I began to use the treadmill desk. Now, some people say they need time and practice to get used to working – typing, reading on the computer monitor, etc. – while walking on the treadmill, but I honestly didn’t. I got right on and started walking and typing away. Keep in mind that you walk quite slowly on a treadmill desk. You’re walking to keep your metabolism moving and your back in shape, not for aerobic exercise. I usually walk at around 1.5 miles/hour, which is a lot slower than you might walk, for instance, while out for your evening constitutional.

Since I began using my treadmill desk, my back problems are almost completely gone. It has made a world of difference. I still have occasional twinges, which is usually a sign I haven’t been stretching enough. That’s when I use my balance ball and my inversion table. Walking while working is an amazing remedy for the mid-afternoon blahs I used to experience just about every day. And weight maintenance is much easier. In fact, many people who begin using a treadmill desk report losing weight quite steadily. One study indicated that the average person lost twenty pounds in the first year of using a treadmill desk.

So, go out and do some research, try some things and see what works for you. There are few things worse than an aching back, so you have nothing to lose!

Bronwyn Best has worked in healthcare for a number of years as a mental health professional. After years of office work and too many years sitting behind a desk, she now works from home on her treadmill desk. This has saved her sanity and her back. She uses the treadmill desk, inversion table, yoga ball, foam roller, and yoga to keep her back healthy.

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