By Hope Sande
Many people suffer with back pain and it can be frustrating, especially if it affects one’s work and sex life. Many jobs require a lot of sitting, but have you asked yourself whether you are sitting right?
It may take growing up to appreciate why your teacher used to beat you for not sitting upright. But bad sitting posture can actually have serious health implications.
A recent study by Harvard University on Testosterone and Cortisol Levels in Individuals with Bad and Good Posture showed that people who slouched had a 10% decrease in testosterone (the male sex hormone that is important for sexual and reproductive development) and a 15% increase in cortisol (the stress hormone), which translates into low self-confidence and high stress.
“Prolonged sitting has been found to disrupt metabolism function, resulting in increased plasma triglyceride levels.”
Triglycerides are the chemical forms in which most fat exists in food as well as in the body. They are also present in blood plasma.
Prolonged sitting has also been found to decrease insulin sensitivity and decrease levels of high density lipoprotein (good) cholesterol.
Bad sitting posture
Geoffrey Madewo, an orthopaedic doctor, says: “Bad sitting posture involves sitting on bad chairs such as those without lumbar back support and high chairs that leave the legs hanging.
Bad sitting posture may also constitute working at unsuitable desks such as those that are too low and would require you to bend, as well as unstable desks that do not allow one to sit upright.
Body habits such as overuse of the hands and wrists, repetitive movements, prolonged immobility and activities that result in reduced blood circulation can also wreak havoc on the back.
This can result in tightening or shortening of the back muscles, while others lengthen and weaken due to one’s daily activities,” he explains.
Madewo cites examples of bad sitting posture as slouching with the shoulders hunched forward, cradling a phone receiver between the neck and shoulders, keeping the head too high or looking down too much, slumping forward, not making use of the office chair lumber support or sliding forward on your seat.
“This is called a mechanical backache — one where one’s spine hurts and leaves a constant pain that one cannot ignore.” This pain could make it hard for a person to go about their normal business, but the effect can be reversed.
Deogratius Bitariho, an orthopaedic specialist and lecturer at Mbarara University, says whenever one sits at the computer and has to bend, one strains the muscles of the backbone, which degenerates the discs in the backbone. This affects the neck and lower back.
People who sit with their legs apart and ankles together, such as Muslims during Juma prayers, exert a lot of pressure on the hip joints and could dislocate them.
Bitariho adds that poor sitting posture reduces the capacity of the lungs to function at optimum capacity, adds stress to the spine and accumulates tension on the muscles, increasing susceptibility to injury.
In addition, it causes more wear and tear on the spinal structure. “Poor sitting posture can result in spinal and joint dysfunction as well as muscle degeneration, resulting in pain and damage.
Good sitting posture, on the other hand, increases one’s ability to breathe well and the muscles to work at optimum capacity.
Who is at risk?
Madewo says everybody is at risk, but the most affected are people whose work involves a lot of sitting. Others are people who slump on a sofa set when watching TV, drivers whose seats are not well adjusted, for example when the seat is so close to the steering wheel, and computer users who work on low desks.
Managing a weak back
Bitariho says physical exercises for at least a month are recommended. A physiotherapy session goes for at least sh10,000 every day.
In addition to paying a consultation fee of at least sh30,000, one may have to purchase medication as prescribed and reduce on the hours of work or take a bed rest.
“The moment the problem starts, it may recur and one would require treatment at least once every year,” he adds.
Martin Mugerwa, a physiotherapist in Naguru, a Kampala suburb, says: “It is important for one to have an exercise programme if the pains have not improved after three to four weeks of treatment.
Patients who plan their own exercise programme do worse than those on physiotherapy. Physiotherapy can correct the defect and keep the spine in a good position, he adds.
Mugerwa says aerobics, stationary biking and swimming can relieve the strain. “Patients should avoid exercises that put the lower back under pressure until the back muscles are well toned.
Maintain a good sitting position throughout all activities.
If you feel pain whenever you sit, change positions and modify your body mechanism.
Sit up straight and if you sit for a long time, bend in the opposite direction to balance the stress out and relieve muscle tension.
Mugerwa says one can do desk exercises such as rolling the shoulders backwards, squeezing the shoulder blades and chin in and slowly stretching the back of the head.
In addition, turn the shoulders with the back stretched forward.
Alternatively, use a lumber support in your car or adjust the car seat upright. This exerts less pressure on the spine. And as you watch TV, sit up and remember to take periodical walks to stretch the back muscles.
Strengthening the back
Madewo recommends a chair that supports the back, sitting in an upright position and walking exercises because they relieve back pain caused by poor sitting posture. “Take a 20-30 minute regular brisk walk every day to strengthen the back, heart and body.”
In addition, he says, to relieve strain on the back, sit forward, fl atten your back by tightening the abdominal muscles, cross the legs at the knees and ensure your knees are higher than the hips.
The correct way to sit while driving is to be as close to the pedals as possible and always fasten the seat belt, with the neck and back in a straight posture and the spine bent forward from the hips.
According to Bitariho one should be able to sit up and where possible, put a small pillow behind the back or head for support.
In addition, the legs should not be hanging; they must rest on the ground.
Ekure says the trick lies in:
Changing one’s sitting habits and adapting to the upright sitting posture at all time.
Whenever you find that you are curved in, remind yourself to lift your shoulders upright.
Exercise often as you maintain the sitting posture because a fit body can heal quite quickly. Let it be a light exercise engineered just for the back so that the bones can heal naturally.
If the pain is unbearable, medication may be recommended.
Additional reporting by Carol Ariba