If it’s a pain in the back it doesn’t have to be

What is optimal sitting posture?

Last week, I was interviewed for a Time.com article on office chairs for people with low back pain.

The feature I chose to highlight was that you want your chair to promote optimal sitting posture. Here is a synopsis.

Low back pain will affect most people throughout their lifetime, and sitting is frequently cited as both a predisposing factor and a reason why the condition tends to be recurrent. When you consider that most Americans work at a job that requires them to sit for hours each day, it’s no surprise that the rate of low-back pain is so high.

Despite that, research has shown that sitting doesn’t have to hurt. According to the article “Seeking the Optimal Posture of the Seated Lumbar Spine,” maintaining optimal low back posture while sitting, especially when regularly interrupted with movement, is vital for spinal health.

When we sit, the lumbar spine (the region corresponding to the lower back) can adopt a lordotic or kyphotic posture. A lordotic posture occurs in upright sitting, with a hollow in the lower back. A kyphotic posture occurs in slouched sitting, where the lower back is rounded.

Research has shown that adopting a lordotic sitting posture is advantageous compared to a kyphotic posture. Assuming a lordotic curve, which is the natural orientation of the lumbar spine, results in decreased disc pressure, lower compressive forces on the discs, and less tension on the ligaments of the lower back.

Optimal sitting posture is defined as 10% relaxation from extreme upright sitting. This position allows the lumbar spine to adopt its standard lordotic curve. While most people can attain that optimal sitting posture, maintaining it for some time becomes a chore. Correcting posture is more of a habit and requires consistent practice, which can be difficult when our default is to sit slouched.

Therefore, in order to maintain the optimal sitting posture, you want a chair that promotes the lower back’s natural curve. Ideally, it should have a built-in lumbar support that encourages the lordotic posture and prevents the lower portion of your spine from falling back into a slouched position.

If your chair doesn’t have this built-in support, you will need help from an external device. There are numerous options for lumbar pillows and supports. Most, however, are too broad and don’t promote optimal seated posture. They tend to push the lower back away from the chair rather than achieving the desired correction.

Thankfully, a support called a lumbar roll is well suited for maintaining optimal sitting posture. It’s about the size and shape of a roll of paper towels and serves as a space holder for the normal lordotic curve.

The lumbar roll should be placed just above the belt line with your hips against the back of the chair, and when worn that way, it prevents the lumbar spine from defaulting into a slouched position.

Studies have shown that the average American sits for more than six hours per day, which continues to rise, making optimal sitting posture more critical now than ever.

Dr. Jordan Duncan is from Kitsap County and writes a monthly online health column for Kitsap News Group, but this topic is of such general interest that it’s running in this week’s newspaper. He is the owner of Silverdale Sport & Spine.