20 Workplace Habits That Make Chronic Pain Worse
But don't go calling a P.I. lawyer just yet.
It’s no secret that Americans are working more than ever. But what may be a surprise is that all this extra time spent in the workplaces of America—from cubicle kingdoms and open-office floor plans to cramped kitchens and sprawling warehouses—is causing a whole lot of workers to be in a whole lot of pain.
And don’t just take it from us. Take it from a recent University of California study, which revealed that negative factors in the workplace, like long hours and poor job security, are directly related to chronic lower back pain, a condition that afflicts more than 80 percent of adult Americans. Or take it from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, who say that a staggering 50 percent of all carpal tunnel syndrome—that’s when the nerves in your wrist become painfully, chronically inflamed—case are work-related.
Yes, this sounds bad, but don’t go calling a personal injury attorney just yet. There’s good news, here: all of this pain is preventable. As a bulk of recent research has revealed—which we’ve pored over and compiled below—a significant amount of job-related pain is incurred due to bad habits you may have internalized over the years. So whatever your occupation—carpenter or computer jockey, CEO or chef—it’s imperative to examine such habits and purge them one by one.
Sitting for long periods
You may have heard that sitting is the new smoking. Studies say that too much time on your butt—even for a few hours at a time—can increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, early death, and even loss of brain function. So it should be no surprise that sitting may also aggravate pain. The chronic inactivity that makes up most office workers’ days can lead to weaker muscles and susceptibility to pain.
Worrying over the little things
Though sitting for long periods may be now thought of as a silent killer, the true king of pain is stress. The stress that you build up during the day—fretting about getting TPS reports in order or whatever the next rapidly approaching deadline is—can increase chronic pain. In fact, one 2013 study found that stress management techniques are essential in helping manage pain.
Working insane hours
The struggle to achieve a good work-life balance is yet another arena in which you’re your own worst enemy. Working endless hours creates added tension, both in your mind and your body. What’s more, all that time in the office cuts into leisure time that could be spent on time-tested stress-relieving activities (a swim, a massage, a round of golf). Put another way: Every extra clocked hour of overtime is only compounding your pain.
Sitting in a bad chair
Though sitting is, again, the new smoking, you’ll want to strike a balance in how much time you spend on your feet. If you spend all day standing, you’ll find yourself on a fast-track to some serious chronic foot pain. Most lower back pain experts recommend splitting your time between sitting and standing. Whether that’s an even 50-50 or a 60-40 split one way or the other is up to you. Gauge your pain and discomfort; you know your body better than anybody else.
That said, for the time you do spend off your feet, you’ll want to ensure you’re sitting in a suitable chair. Instead of the standard-issue shoddy, mesh-backed monstrosities of most offices, invest in an ergonomic, body-cradling throne of comfort, like one of The 15 Best Upscale Office Chairs Executives Swear By.
Eating vending machine food
The more overweight you become, the more likely your chronic pain will stick around. And few things pack on the pounds like frequent trips to the vending machine for a Snickers or bag of Lays. Oh, and even if you’re not concerned about chronic muscle pain, a 2016 study out of the University of Cincinnati linked junk food to frequent migraines. If you find yourself craving a crunchy, reach for a healthy option: baby carrots and hummus, a handful of lightly salted nuts, or even just a crisp, fresh apple.
Endlessly staring at the screen
Staring at a glaring monitor can cause all manner of negative side effects, from blurry vision to fatigue to, according to a study in the journal BMC Public Health, headaches. To combat these, implement the popular 20-20-20 technique: Every 20 minutes, stare at an object at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This will give your eyes, and mind, some much-needed rest.
Skipping the stairs
By taking the elevator every day, you’re only shooting yourself in the foot. Not only does a jaunt up the stairs aid limbering up your legs—so, when you do sit, it’s in relative comfort—it also grants an energy boost equivalent to that of a small cup coffee. Seeing as excess caffeine consumption has been linked to increased blood pressure, this way, you can have your cake (er… energy) and eat (er… drink) it, too.
Hunching over your desk
Bad posture can set you up for a lot of tiny, nagging pains and aches in general. But if you hunch at work for hours and hours, you’ll feel it most acutely in your upper back.
Having sitting meetings
If all of your meetings take place in a cramped conference room with inflexible chairs, task your boss to start up a walking meeting once a month. The emphasis on movement can help with idea generation, and a little less time spent sitting can help you with pain management.
Eating at your desk
Spending too much time at your desk can lead to a whole raft of bad health outcomes. Namely, wolfing down your lunch everyday in front of your computer, instead of getting out and moving around, can contribute to obesity, says a 2010 study from the University of Montreal. And being overweight is a sure way to contribute to keeping pain around a lot longer.
Lifting heavy things with your back
Everyone’s taught to “life with your legs.” And, though most people don’t follow that advice religiously, take it from me: once your feel something twinge in your back while lifting a heavy object the wrong way, this adage becomes gospel. Making sure to squat more while lifting heavy objects from the floor (instead of bending over) will help your lower back stay healthy and strong.
Stepping outside for a smoke
Though you may think that getting up and going outside for a smoke will contribute to your moving around goal for the day, it unfortunately doesn’t work that way. Not only will smoking tobacco increase risk for cancer, heart disease, and stroke, studies have shown that it’s also linked to lower back pain and chronic pain in general.
Refusing to clean your desk
No, a messy desk doesn’t directly contribute to levels of chronic (or acute) pain. But if your office desk regularly looks your dorm desk did back during college midterms, that’s likely causing you some serious stress—even if you don’t necessarily realize it. Stress, again, is directly linked to higher levels of chronic (and acute) pain. If you need help keeping things tidy, start with these 20 Easy Tips for Keeping Your Desk Organized.
Holding your phone wrong
Cradling your landline phone (remember those?) in between your shoulder and head can be a recipe for considerable neck and shoulder pain. Instead, try to use a hands-free set, or take care to hold your phone properly: receiver in-hand. One case in France even saw an office worker suffer a minor stroke after spending more than an hour talking in shoulder-head cramped position!
Carrying a heavy bag
Lugging a heavy purse or incorrectly carrying an over-burdened backpack can contribute to lower back pain, say multiple recent studies. If you do wear a backpack to work, make sure to two-strap the thing. And if it’s still weighing you down, consider putting on the hip belt or, if you don’t want to look like a dork, distributing your load between two separate bags.
Wearing heels all week
Yes, high heels are a staple of the modern worker dress code (and are, more often than not, extremely stylish, to boot). But slipping on a pair of elevated kicks can put a lot of pressure on the lower lumbar, which can then lead to neck, shoulder, and back pain. To combat this, earmark a few days per week where stilettos are out and wedges or flats are in.
Keeping a maladjusted computer screen
Along with making sure your chair is relaxing and comfortable, you should also set up the top of your desk to maximize its ergonomics. This means adjusting your monitor or computer screens so they aren’t too high—shoot for about and arm’s length away with the top of the screen no more than two to three inches above eye level.
Completing all your walking tasks at once
Don’t get so involved in your work that you end up banking all of the tasks or errands that you need to do—either in the workplace or nearby—for the last part of your day. Mix them in with your normal routine so you can more easily add in movement and mobility to your day-to-day.
Typing with your hands on the desk
You may not realize it, but proper posture also extends to how you place your hands when you type. To keep pain at bay, make sure to type with your hands hovering over the keys, not resting on the desk or keyboard itself, so your shoulders are more relaxed and your wrists aren’t bent in an unnatural angle.
Maintaining a poorly adjusted seat
Finally picked up a new, ergonomically sound chair? Make sure it’s adjusted to perfection. Any pain-reducing benefits you’d receive are for naught if it’s too high or low. Here’s how to find the perfect position. Make sure your hips are flush against the chair’s back, and your feet are flat on the floor. Then, adjust the chair until your knees are bent at a 90-degree angle. Voila!