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Ask the Expert: The Sitting Disease

back pain

In this week’s Ask the Expert, Dr. Alice Chen, Physiatrist, answers questions on the sitting disease.

Q1. What is the sitting disease?

The sitting disease is a coined phrase for the physiological effects of prolonged sitting. It is the effects on the body on a cellular level as well as on a whole body system. Recent research has validated what we as physiatrists have been advising our patients all along. There is good sitting posture and bad sitting posture and these also impact how your core and gluteal muscles work or don’t work. The interesting thing is that even the recommended 30 minutes of exercise daily that we as physicians have been recommending is not enough to offset the physiologic changes at the cellular level on the body with the prolonged inactivity. The sitting and how we are sitting is the problem.

Q2. What health risks are possible?

Prolonged periods of inactivity causes muscular atrophy (shrinking muscles), a predilection toward obesity (lower caloric output), insulin resistance, and increases in cardiovascular risks. Poor sitting can lead to inactive muscles and all the physiological processes highlighted above, but the poor posture and inactive muscles can also lead to neck and back pain, which has become an epidemic problem in our culture.

Q3. Who is at high risk?

People who have jobs or hobbies that have them sitting for prolonged periods of time are at risk. These are your office workers and drivers, but it can also include anyone who finds themselves sitting at their desktop or laptop for several hours a day. People who have workspaces that are cramped may be at risk as well. Our reliance in the workplace on the computer has encouraged many of us to sit in a single position for longer periods of time.

Q4. What are your recommendations for prevention?

I recommend getting out of the sitting position once an hour, even if it is only for a 2 minute stretch/walk. Take the memo by hand to your colleague. Get your own coffee or water. Take a real lunch break (not in your cubby). I suggest setting a timer once an hour to remind you to move. Even standing and marching in place while you are on a phone call counts! Phone calls can be done on a wireless headset and that frees you to pace or move about your space. The 30 minute daily aerobic exercise is still recommended for cardiovascular health, but it alone is not enough. There are also dynamic sitting balls that encourage the muscles of the gluteals and abdomen to engage even while sitting. I call this sitting with intention.

Q5. What can you do when you sit at work for extended periods of time?

An ergonomic desk evaluation, which can be performed by a skilled physical therapist or occupational therapist, is helpful for those that sit at a desk for most of the day. Sometimes, just the proper positioning of desk equipment (phone, keyboard, monitor, etc.) can encourage better sitting posture when you are sitting.

Dr. Alice Chen, physiatrist

Dr. Alice Chen, Physiatrist, treats disorders and injuries of the neck, back, muscles, and joints in a minimally invasively manner using techniques including epidural injections, blocks, radiofrequency ablation, joint injections, and medical acupuncture. She employs techniques using ultrasound guidance and fluoroscopic guidance to enable accurate treatment of deeper structures.

The information provided in this blog by HSS and our affiliated physicians is for general informational and educational purposes, and should not be considered medical advice for any individual problem you may have. This information is not a substitute for the professional judgment of a qualified health care provider who is familiar with the unique facts about your condition and medical history. You should always consult your health care provider prior to starting any new treatment, or terminating or changing any ongoing treatment. Every post on this blog is the opinion of the author and may not reflect the official position of HSS. Please contact us if we can be helpful in answering any questions or to arrange for a visit or consult.