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Back Pain and Ergonomic Seating
BSI Staff

Many people, Americans especially, consider sitting down as “relaxing.”  But, if someone has back pain and doesn't know why, then maybe their back isn’t happy sitting in the particular chair that they chose to “relax” in.

The muscles of the back provide support to people while they are standing.  In this position, the bones, vertebrae and muscles all work together to support each other and allow ease of movement.  When sitting, the seat of a chair actually forces the spine to change its position and the muscles, bones, and vertebrae then try to adjust to “fit” the chair.  When sitting, the spine actually flattens a bit, causing pressure on the natural curve of the lower back (the lumbar section).  If someone sits for long hours in an uncomfortable chair, back problems can develop.  Already existing problems can become worse.  So, what does one need to have a comfortable, back-friendly chair?

There is no single “correct” answer to this question.  Look around any office.  There will be a variety of body types and sizes.  A 6’ 4” man can’t be expected to be comfortable in a chair that is also available for a 5’2” woman.  People who have their height in their legs won’t be comfortable in the same chair as people who have their height in their torsos.  The idea of a “one-size-fits-all” chair is a myth. 

What, then, are the elements that contribute to a comfortable, ergonomic chair that will support a person’s back?

Weight Distribution: The seat of a good chair needs to be high enough off the floor that a person’s legs are comfortably supported.  The knees should be at about a 90-degree angle and the thighs should be parallel to the floor.  The seat of the chair should allow enough room so a person is comfortable.  This means that there should be about 2 – 4 inches between the edge of the chair and the back of the knees.  The seat of the chair should allow a person’s weight to be evenly distributed.

Lumbar Support:
The back of the chair should be designed so that the natural curve of the lumbar section is supported.  The support should fit the individual and prevent any slouching in the chair.  A person’s lower back should not be flattened against the back of the chair, forcing the back into an unnatural position.  This might seem comfortable at first, but the longer a back is forced into this position, the more pain an individual will experience over time. 

As anyone who has ever sat in bleachers or metal folding chairs knows, padding on a chair is important.  The padding needs to fit the seat of the chair and it should be of breathable material.  The best chair in the world won’t be very effective if a person has to keep shifting in it because the chair material itself is uncomfortable.

Chair / Seat Tilt:
Comfort is also dictated by the tilt of the seat.  A chair’s seat can tilt so that the back descends into the chair (a column tilt) or the tilt can force the knees upward, (a back-down tilt) which also force the back downward.  There is no preferable choice since the needs of each individual will be different.  There are many things to consider, but the basic goal is to properly support the lumbar region.

Adjustable Features:
The chair needs to be adjustable.  Most chairs don’t exist for one single person.  Sometimes, for various reasons (like a pregnancy) a chair might need to be adjusted for the same individual.  Sometimes the work a person is doing might dictate an adjustment.  Typing, or long-term work on a computer, requires that armrests be removed or adjusted so that the arms don’t rest on the armrests.  The arms should be allowed to move and adjust as the work changes.  The chair itself should be able to swivel so an individual can easily maneuver the chair.

Movement: A lot of money can be spent on a good ergonomic chair, but one key to comfortable seating is free:  Move around as much as possible.  People were not designed to be kept in one position for long periods of time.  A chair might be comfortable, but everyone should make a point to get out of the chair and move.  This keeps the back flexible and allows the benefits of that good chair to keep working.  If someone sits in a chair so long that the chair has become molded to that particular person, it is time to get a new chair!

Assess your seating needs and meet them whatever they are. Reducing stress, strain and back pain can be achieved with the proper tools, and a good ergonomic chair is a key element in achieving relief.

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