What are the health implications for people who spend too long each day sat at their desk, at home or in traffic?

Almost every patient who comes into our clinic spends a lot of time sitting down. They are either in the office all day at a desk and computer workstation, or traveling in a car, and when they get home they may sit for several hours watching the T.V. They often say that when they go on holiday and rest or do other activities, their symptoms improve.

Prolonged sitting in a seated position strains muscles and spinal joints in the lower back, the upper back and the neck. If ignored this leads to chronic low back pain involving the sacro-iliac joints, the lumbar spine and depending on the positions you adopt, the dorsal and cervical spine. Muscle strain leads to spasm and imbalance, which in turn can block the pelvic and spinal joints causing pelvic dysfunction or facet syndrome, which can be very painful. Collectively these are the most common problems we treat at the clinic. Left untreated, it can also result in degenerative disc disease, disc herniation and facet joint arthritis. Sitting for long periods of time can also cause headaches, especially if you have bad posture with the head poked forward, causing muscle tension in the neck, resulting in blocked joints, at the top and the base of your neck. Pain from the neck is referred to the head and often felt as a headache.

Apart from general pain and stiffness, the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that people who sit still for prolonged periods of time have increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease such as heart disease, cancer and other prevalent chronic health problems. Prolonged sitting promotes a lack of whole-body muscle movement, recent evidence has shown that sitting for long hours can raise your risk of early death from cardiovascular diseases. 1

(Published Online First 2 December 2008 Neville Owen, Cancer Prevention Research Centre, School of Population Health, The University of Queensland, Herston Road, Herston 4006, Brisbane, Australia. Et al)

There may be other factors involved, such as the fact that active jobs and lifestyles are often outside in the sunlight and fresh air. Lack of vitamin D may be involved.

What is considered too long without a break – and what kind of a break should people take?
It’s important to take regular breaks, but people may think moving from their desk and sitting in a canteen or coffee shop is enough, but its not. We recommend getting up for a 2 minute walk around the office with regular stretches at least every hour but preferably every half hour.

What percentage of your clients have problems that result from poor posture or too long sitting each day?

We carried out a pilot survey in our clinic, and 80% of people thought that sitting for long periods of time has affected their health and in turn was the reason for seeking Chiropractic treatment. Although we have not completed a study on this my feeling is that about 75% of our patients have posture problems, which may arise or become worse from too much sitting.

What can people do to minimize the damage caused by working at a desk or commuting in the car each day?

Make sure that you have your workstation ergonomically correct. The chair you sit in is one of the most important aspects of this set up and should be fully adjustable to your size. Car seats should be adjusted to your needs and if the lumbar support is inadequate and you are in the car for more than 20 minutes at a time, a custom made support can be used. If you have pain, don’t ignore it. Visit an expert such as a chiropractor, we can examine you thoroughly, check out your posture, treat your spine and rebalance your nervous system.

Is this problem worse or different in the UAE to Europe? If so why?

The UAE has a very strong work ethic and from the questions I ask my patients who come to see me, I believe people often work longer hours and have more stress. Employers should invest in better ergonomic equipment to suit each employee. Regulations in the U.S. and some of Europe encourage this, but sadly only a few companies in the UAE take trouble to ensure their employees have the correct set up. We have carried out ergonomic and spinal checks in a number of companies in Abu Dhabi, which is very encouraging. People who work in offices or sit for large periods of time should take regular breaks, do stretching exercises, and keep as active as possible.