How To Avoid Back Pain When Working from Home
If sitting at your home office desk is causing you pain, you’re not alone. We share tips on how to avoid back pain in a WFH environment.

Written by Room For Her

Published on February 28, 2022
A woman leans back in visible pain while rubbing her lower back

One of the few good things to come out of the pandemic is the widespread adoption of remote work, and for many professionals, it seems to be here to stay. While the benefits of ditching your commute and wearing sweatpants to work speak for themselves, remote work also comes with a distinct set of challenges. One of the more common concerns is back pain brought on by sitting in front of a computer all day, possibly on a non-ergonomic chair, on your couch or in bed. We consulted Dr. Stuart McGill, Professor Emeritus of Kinesiology at the University of Waterloo and author of Back Mechanic, for expert advice. Here’s what we learned.

Physical fitness and at-home work setup matters  

The spine and all of its attendant discs, tissues and muscles is an exceptionally complex system with several pain mechanisms, says Dr. McGill, so, unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all treatment for back pain. “If someone offers to give you a simple answer to your back pain without performing a decent assessment — I would recommend running the other way because they’re not an expert,” he says. Instead, to understand why your back hurts, you first need to consider several factors, including your level of physical fitness, home office setup and daily habits.

Learn more about how to ask your boss to work from home indefinitely.

The source of back pain

“Pain isn’t normal — it’s an indicator that something in the system is being overloaded,” McGill says. He explains that the source of much back pain is crossing a tipping point at which your spine is holding more load than it can comfortably bear. That point will be different for everyone, and you can cross it just as easily doing everyday tasks at home as lifting too much weight at the gym, depending on your body. However, the cause of our back pain may be linked to a common factor — sitting in front of a computer all day. “Sitting isn’t easy on you if you do a lot of it,” says McGill. Back pain, he explains, results from overloading your spine in any one of four ways: load, magnitude, duration and repetition. Sitting, he says, is equivalent to holding a static, low-level load for hours, and it’s this combination of a light load over a long duration that contributes to this common category of back pain.

Going for a walk can help those suffering from back pain 

As complex as the problem is, however, the antidote can be surprisingly simple for many people with back pain resulting from sitting: frequent short walks. “The faster you’re triggered by back pain when you sit, the more frequent the walks and the shorter the duration,” McGill says. “It’s not a matter of going for a two-hour hike — that will guarantee back pain for some people — but if you have a ten-minute walk after breakfast, lunch, dinner and before bed, that might be the best exposure you could get to mitigate back pain.”

Switch up seating arrangements if possible

Of course, what you sit on is also part of the puzzle, and some chairs may be better than others for your back. One thing, however, is true regardless: variation helps. “When I was working at the university, I had three different chairs in my office, and I would rotate between them,” McGill says. He explains that switching up your seating is similar to working different muscle groups on different days at the gym. “Now that I’m retired, I do heavy physical work every day, but I don’t do the same thing two days in a row. So I’m always stimulating and creating the adaptation to get stronger and more resilient rather than accumulating stress.” Similarly, he says, sit-stand desks migrate stress from one supporting back tissue to another and help any single part of your back from getting overloaded by sitting all day.

Try an inflatable ball to sit on

McGill suggests incorporating inflatable ball chairs, too, within limits. “If you sit on a yoga ball, you use different muscles, and it assists you in aligning your spine in an upright posture,” McGill says. “It’s a nice break to reduce that stress on your discs, but don’t sit on it for a long period.” For a simple fix to make any chair at home more back-friendly (or a car or airplane seat for that matter), he suggests investing in an inflatable lumbar support pillow.

Each of these solutions is just one tool among many that will help make your WFH setup more comfortable and let you enjoy the perks of remote working pain-free.

Learn more about what employees need to know about the hybrid work model.

Disclaimer: This article contains guidelines or advice not intended to self-diagnose or treat. No content should be used as a substitute for direct advice from a qualified professional such as your doctor or mental health professional. Please reach out for support with a certified professional related to the symptoms you may be experiencing.

If you are in crisis and require immediate support, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. Alternately, please contact the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1 833 456-4566 (en tout temps). 1-833-456-4566 (24/7). For residents of Québec, call1 866 APPELLE (1 866 277-3553).

Subscribe to our newsletter

Sign up for free tips, resources and more.