We’ve all been told—especially as children—to stop slouching and to stand or sit up straight. As it happens, this is great advice to keep the spine healthy and reduce the risk for a painful low back condition.
A landmark 1981 study calculated the amount of pressure placed on the intervertebral disks in the lower back in various positions. A neutral standing position places about 100 pounds per square inch (lbs/in2) of pressure on the disk in the low back and laying supine (facing up) cuts the pressure dramatically to 25 lbs/in2. On the other hand, when subjects stood leaning forward or sat slouching forward, the pressure placed on the lower back disks jumped as high as 275 lbs/in2. All this added pressure can place the disks at increased risk for injury, which can have a dramatic effect on a patient’s ability to carry out their daily work and life activities.
To maintain and improve one’s posture (either standing or sitting), Harvard Medical School recommendations the following:
- Visualize: Think of a straight line that passes evenly through the ears, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles (when standing). Then imagine a strong cord attached to the top of the head pulling you upwards, making you taller (i.e., “stand tall”).
- Shoulder blade squeeze: Sit up straight in a chair, relax the arms with the shoulders down (no shrugging), breathe deeply, and draw the shoulders back and squeeze the scapulae together keeping the chin tucked in. Repeat three to four times.
- Chest stretch: Stand facing a corner and place your forearms and palms on each of the two walls and straddle your feet one in front of the other. Lean forward until there’s a strong stretch in the chest muscles. Hold for 20-30 seconds and take deep breaths.
- Arm-across-chest stretch: Raise the right arm forward to shoulder height and bend at the elbow. Grasp the right elbow with the left hand and gently pull it across your chest until you feel a strong stretch in the right shoulder and arm. Hold for 20 seconds and repeat on the opposite side and repeat three times.
What about individuals who already have injured or degenerated lumbar spinal disks? What can they do to sit as pain-free as possible? In a 2018 study, researchers evaluated lumbar disk patients as they sat in various types of chairs and found that a kneeling chair is best for keeping the spine in a neutral posture, reducing the pressure on the disks. Additionally, a study published in 2021 showed that trunk muscle activity increases when patients with chronic back pain slouch forward, which means poor posture isn’t even relaxing.
In addition to providing advice and exercises for improving posture, your doctor of chiropractic can provide treatment to restore normal movement to the lumbar spine to reduce low back pain and disability.