According to Dr. Emily N. Ussery et al., a quarter of adults sit for 8 hours a day in the US. Therefore, any job that requires prolonged sitting, be it taxi drivers or office clerks, are susceptible to chronic pain and joint problems in the neck, shoulders, back, hips, knees, and arms. The medical professionals at General Physician understand the issues associated with prolonged sitting and can help you take preventative measures to maintain healthy joints.
Prolonged sitting’s primary victim is the disks between the vertebrae in your lumbar spine. Dr. Loubert Suddaby, MD, says your disks are like a jelly donut, with the inner part, or nucleus pulposus, consisting of high water content and layers of cartilage forming the outer part, or annulus. The disks act as shock absorbers for your vertebrae and give you the mobility to bend and twist.
Too much pressure on these disks causes problems. Dr. Suddaby states, “The intradiscal pressure is highest when you sit. It is lower when you stand and, of course, it’s lowest when you lay down.” This pressure is exacerbated when you slouch. “When people get tired, they tend to lean forward and put pressure on their spine, front-loading the discs and causing more damage.” The damage leads to degenerative disk disorder, which causes chronic pain and loss of flexibility.
Dr. Suddaby recommends keeping an upright posture to distribute pressure more evenly along your spine to lower the risk of damage. Maintaining a slight arch in your lumbar spine is especially important when driving, as bumps in the road can cause additional trauma to the disks. Dr. Suddaby suggests using a pillow or rolled-up towel as support or a specially designed Obusforme for your desk chair or car seat.
Dr. Suddaby also suggests taking breaks from sitting every 30 minutes and performing preventative isometric exercises. He states, “The best exercises are not Isokinetic exercises like you would get from sports, jogging, or running. They’re isometric exercises. They involve toning the core muscles that support the spine, neck, and lumbar by tensioning the muscles without moving the spine.” Isometric exercises need to be performed habitually to get the full effect, like brushing your teeth.
Hamstrings & Knees
Prolonged sitting also has an orthopedic impact on your hamstrings, knees, back, and core. Todd Sweeney, OTR/L, CHT, explains what happens when seated: “Your hamstrings and hip flexors shorten, impacting your back. In addition, core muscles get weak due to slouching and poor posture.” Mr. Sweeney uses the term “kinetic chain” to describe how deficiencies in one area can create a chain reaction. When one link in the chain is weakened, like your hamstrings, it can lead to back problems, knee and calf problems, and then onwards in both directions.
Another critical factor is synovial fluid. Dr. Sweeney states, “Our bodies produce synovial fluid, which occupies our joints. Regular movement, weight-bearing, and exercise help the body to produce extra synovial fluid which encourages strong muscles, flexible tendons, and healthy cartilage.”
Mr. Sweeney says that isotonic exercises are beneficial for your joints, similar to isometric exercises. Think of lifting weights like dumbbells, resistance bands, or your bodyweight. Any controlled resistance movement will strengthen the muscles around the joint and add dynamic movement to the joint.
Mr. Sweeney, like Dr. Suddaby, also stresses the importance of good posture and taking regular breaks to get up and move around. He states, "The optimal position is to have your knees, hips, and ankles sitting at 90 degrees each." This position will maintain the integrity of the kinetic chain in your lower body and prevent pressure from building in your joints during the day.
Wrists & Shoulders
Prolonged sitting causes problems in your upper body, too. Slouching forward causes your shoulders to slope, leading to increased pressure and grinding on your rotator cuff. Dr. Paterson, MD, an upper extremity surgeon, often sees wrist and elbow injuries. “Typing with your arms tucked in close to your body all day can cause a pinched ulnar nerve in your elbow. I work on carpal tunnels daily, which are caused by overuse and poor wrist positioning during work.” These injuries will cause shooting pains through your forearm and into your fingertips. The pain can get severe enough to disturb sleep at night, too.
Dr. Paterson states that movement is as essential for healthy joints as correct posture. He states, “While it’s always important to maintain good posture at work, whether sitting or standing, regularly getting up and moving is just as important. Movement provides blood flow to all of your soft tissues, which keeps them soft and compliant. But, unfortunately, it’s something people can neglect when trying to avoid overuse injuries associated with their occupation.”
Dr. Paterson recommends taking breaks every 30 minutes to do mobility exercises like shoulder and neck rolls. You may also purchase a lightweight dumbbell to do wrist flexor/extensor exercises. Ergonomic keyboards can also help prevent carpal tunnel and pinched ulnar nerves.
No matter the work, prolonged sitting can lead to deficiencies and injuries throughout your body. So be sure to monitor how long you sit and take appropriate breaks to stand and move around. And remember, if you are experiencing symptoms or injuries related to prolonged sitting, contact General Physicians PC to schedule an appointment with one of our medical experts.