Back pain in the workplace

According to a study conducted by the South African Society of Physiotherapy, upper and lower back pain is extremely prevalent in South Africa with about 80% of people having pain or discomfort at some point in their lives. Globally, work-related back pain is a common health issue that affects many people regardless of age or occupation. For office workers, causes of upper and lower back pain are often attributed to poor posture and prolonged sitting. The dangers of sitting: why sitting is the new smoking.

upper and lower back pain is common among office workers

In developed countries, the lifetime prevalence of low back pain is between 75 and 84% of the general population – National Library of Medicine.

causes oand consequences of upper and lower back pain on the workplace
Graphic with acknowledgement to The Good Body

90% of upper and lower back pain is caused by an “often-occurring condition”, usually with a non-specific cause. In other words, it is frequently difficult to pinpoint the exact source of the discomfort. In a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health, after the common cold, back pain was found to be the second most common cause for work absenteeism. 

According to an estimate by the Nevada Comprehensive Pain Center, based on data from the National Institutes of Health, back pain costs the US economy between $560 to $635 billion annually. This is a combination of healthcare costs plus losses associated with work absenteeism.

Early intervention, creating an ergonomic work station, treatment and healthy lifestyle habits can help prevent back pain and reduce absenteeism.

1. Causes of Upper and Lower Back Pain

There are many possible causes of back pain, including the following:

a. Muscular

The overuse or straining of the muscles that support the spine frequently result in both upper and lower back pain. Examples include:

  • Muscle and ligament strains.
  • Overstretching of the muscles and ligaments of the neck and upper back due to sudden forward and backward movement of the neck (whiplash).
  • Muscle spasms or involuntary muscle contractions.
  • Repetitive stress or overuse of muscles in the back can result in ‘tight’ muscles and pain.
  • Muscle imbalances where one side of the opposing muscles are stronger than the other side.

b. Skeletal problems of the spine

Degeneration, disease, or trauma may impact the spine’s alignment or movement and cause severe back pain. Typical examples include:

  • Disc damage for example herniated or bulging discs caused by incorrect lifting of a heavy object.
  • Joint and bone degeneration (osteoarthritis).
  • Skeletal deformity (scoliosis).
  • Stress fractures or injuries in one of the bones of the spine (Spondylosis).
  • Osteoporosis.

c. Pinched nerves or pressure on nerves in the back

Back pain is often caused when there is pressure on nerves in the nervous system which affects different parts of the upper back, shoulders, arms and wrists. Some examples include: 

  • Sciatica is pain in the buttock and leg caused by pressure on nerves in the lower back.
  • Nerve Damage to the suprascapular nerve in your shoulder.
  • Pinched nerves in the upper or lower back and neck.

d. Other issues that may cause back pain

  • Internal organ problems like kidney stones, bladder, pelvic and ovarian disorders.
  • Obesity can cause excessive strain on the spine resulting in lower back pain.
  • Mental stress and anxiety can lead to tension in the muscles of the back, causing middle and upper back pain.
  • Genetics.

2. Common symptoms of shoulder, neck, upper and lower back pain

Symptoms of upper back, shoulder and arm pain:

  • Pain that radiates from the wrist (carpal tunnel), into the arm, shoulders and upper back
  • Pain that radiates from the upper back into the arms (pinched nerve in upper back or neck)
  • Stiffness or muscles spasms in the upper back or neck
  • Dull, aching pain in the upper back or neck
  • Sharp, shooting pain in the upper back or neck
  • Stiffness or limited range of motion in the shoulders or arms

Symptoms of lower back pain:

  • Dull, painful lower back discomfort that may be continuous or intermittent
  • Pain that extends into the buttocks, thighs or legs
  • Stiffness or restricted range of movement in the lower back
  • Difficulty walking or standing up straight
  • Weakness, numbness or tingling in the legs or feet.

3. The 7 factors that increase the risk of back pain among office workers

Upper and lower back, neck and shoulder pain when sitting, can be caused by several factors.

Without doubt, one of the biggest contributors is an incorrect sitting posture. Most people spend 10 hours or more per day sitting, and unfortunately, our bodies are not designed to sit. What actually happens when you sit?

Sitting is a static posture causes increased stress in the back, neck, arms and legs, which can result in back pain – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.

Furthermore, a static posture increases the pressure in the back muscles and spinal discs. As we work, our core muscles get tired and we have a tendency to slouch in our chair. If we are focused on our work, we may not even be aware that we are doing so!

a. Incorrect chair height

If the chair height is incorrect it can put pressure on the back and cause discomfort. What is the correct ergonomic height for my desk, computer monitor and office chair?

b. Lumbar support

Back and lumbar support is critical to prevent lower back pain while sitting. Back support for an office chair – why it’s important

c. Poor ergonomic setup is a primary cause of back pain

Improperly designed workstations or equipment can cause back pain by forcing workers into awkward positions. Incorrect monitor heights, keyboard and mouse placement may cause pain in the wrists, elbows, arms and shoulders. Best practices for ergonomics in the workplace.

d. Poor posture 

Sitting forward or in a slumped position that does not provide proper spinal alignment can lead to pain in the upper and lower back, shoulders and neck. 

e. Lack of movement 

Sitting or standing for prolonged periods in the same position throughout the working day can lead to weakened muscles and stiffness, causing pain in the lower back.

f. Twisting and bending increases the risk of back pain

Jobs that require a lot of repetitive reaching for objects, or twisting and bending at the waist can cause severe back pain.

g. Stress

Persistent work-related stress and tension trying to meet deadlines can cause muscle tightness and contribute to upper back and neck pain. Can Stress Cause Lower Back Pain?

4. The 8 ways to prevent back pain in the office

Preventing back pain at work involves taking proactive steps to maintain good posture, stay active, and avoid repetitive motions or strains that can cause muscular or skeletal-related problems. Here are 8 tips to help prevent back pain at the office.

a. Practice good posture

Sit up straight and keep your shoulders back to maintain proper spinal alignment. Avoid slouching or hunching over your desk or computer. 

A good posture is the key to avoiding and relieving back, neck and shoulder pain.

b. Take frequent breaks

Get up and move around every 30-40 minutes. Movement and exercise increase blood flow and keeps your muscles, ligaments, joints and bone tissues healthy. Do some stretching of your back and neck, do a few squats, walk, jump, or roll your shoulders to reduce upper back pain. Do anything to get your joints and muscles moving and blood pumping through your muscles and to your brain.

c. Stretch and move regularly

Incorporate stretching exercises into your daily routine to strengthen your core, improve flexibility and prevent muscle imbalances. Movement is critical for your mind and body. Use a chair with a swivel mechanism that promotes Dynamic Sitting

d. Ergonomic equipment is crucial for preventing upper and lower back pain

Use an ergonomic chair or orthopedic chair with proper lumbar support and adjust your workstation to ensure that your computer, keyboard, and mouse are at the right height and distance.

e. A Standing desk may prevent back pain

Upgrading your workspace with a standing or height adjustable desk may reduce the amount of time spent sitting down. Furthermore, the very act of sitting down and standing up will activate muscles in your back and so stimulate blood flow. 

f. Stay active 

Regular physical activity outside the office can help strengthen the muscles that support the spine and prevent back pain. Walking, running, going to the gym or playing sport are great ways to improve the health of your back.

g. Prioritise your mental health

Practice stress-reducing techniques such as meditation or deep breathing techniques to prevent muscle tension and reduce the risk of back pain.

h. Stay hydrated 

Dehydration can cause muscle cramps and tightness, so be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day.


By taking these steps, you can effectively manage lower back pain at work and prevent it from negatively impacting your work productivity and overall quality of life.

If you experience persistent or severe back pain, it’s crucial to seek medical attention from a healthcare professional. Persistent pain can be a sign of a serious underlying condition and a medical professional can help identify the cause and recommend appropriate treatment.

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