Back pain at work

Back pain is the leading cause of long-term sickness in the UK, responsible for more than 15 million lost work days in 2013.

The most common causes of back pain are strained muscles or ligaments, wear and tear, bad posture and stress.

Most of us will have back pain at some point in our lives. Although painful, back pain isn't serious in most cases. The pain generally lasts from a few days to a few weeks. It usually clears up after about six weeks.

Treating back pain

In general, the best treatment is to stay active and, if necessary, use over-the-counter painkillers. You may feel like going to bed, but this won’t help and could make it worse.

The longer you're immobile, the weaker your back muscles will become, and the more they will hurt in the long term.

The best ways to deal with pain and help your back to recover are to maintain your mobility, based on your usual activities, and return to work as soon as possible.

Your state of mind can also play an important role. Research has shown that people who remain positive tend to recover quicker than those who get depressed.

For back pain that lasts more than six weeks, treatment typically involves a combination of painkillers and either acupuncture, exercise classes or manual therapy.

Read more about treating back pain.

Back pain at your desk

Sitting for long periods in front of a computer is storing up trouble. No matter how good your positioning, it is important to get up every so often. Health experts recommend breaking up sedentary time every 30 minutes for at least one to two minutes. Find out more about the risks of sitting

Workstation factors that can affect your back include:

  • seating posture
  • computer screen position
  • chair height
  • keyboard position
  • mouse position
  • desk equipment layout

If you work in an office and use a computer, you can improve your posture by sitting in the right position and arranging your desk correctly. Get tips on how to sit correctly.

If you're not sure about your seating position and workstation, ask your manager to arrange a workplace assessment for you.


Adjusting your chair to avoid back pain

By law, workstation chairs must be stable. The standard office chair has five legs in a star shape.

The seat height must be adjustable, and the back rest must be adjustable in height and tilt. Ideally, the back rest should move independently of the seat to allow a comfortable position.

When you’re sitting, your thighs should be at right angles to your body or sloping slightly down.

If your chair is properly adjusted, your feet should be firmly on the floor, but if it’s more comfortable, use a footrest. The basic rule is to plant your feet on the floor and support your back.

For a healthy back:

  • Take regular breaks from your desk or your work
  • Vary your activities throughout the day
  • Sit up straight
  • Exercise regularly
  • Lose any excess weight

Lifting safely to prevent back pain

One of the biggest causes of back injury, especially at work, is lifting or handling objects incorrectly. Learning and following the correct method for lifting and handling objects can help to prevent back pain.

Key points for lifting safely:

  • think before you lift
  • start in a good position
  • keep the load close to your waist
  • keep your back as straight as possible
  • avoid twisting your back or leaning sideways
  • keep your head up
  • know your limits
  • push heavy objects, don't pull them
  • distribute the weight evenly

For more information on correct lifting techniques and safe manual handling, read Safe lifting tips.

Take regular breaks

Don’t sit in the same position for long periods. Make sure you change your posture as often as is practicable.

Frequent short breaks are better for your back than fewer long ones. It gives the muscles a chance to relax while others take the strain. This can prevent you from becoming stiff and tense.

Most jobs provide opportunities to take a break from the screen, such as getting a drink, going for some fresh air, filing or photocopying.

For free work-related health advice visit the Fit for Work website.

Healthy back at work

Trevor Shaw, principal ergonomist, explains how bad posture contributes to health problems including back pain. He describes how to improve your health at work.

Media last reviewed: 08/07/2015

Next review due: 08/07/2017

Page last reviewed: 12/07/2014

Next review due: 12/07/2016


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The 13 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Gwenndolen said on 20 October 2015

I have to agree with 'not in the office', as the advice on this page is all well and good if you work in an office but a lot of jobs, certainly in the NHS, don't fall in to this category. I work in a physically challenging job where I carry boxes, babies, toddlers and am expected to sit on the floor or at a low table and despite my manager saying it is okay to use a higher chair, it doesn't work at a low table and you can't expect a small toddler/child to sit at a higher table! I am currently suffering back pain severe enough to keep me off work and dread what the future holds here., but I also worry for others as I don't think enough is being done to protect our backs at work. Yes we, as employees, need to take responsibility but surely your managers/company does as well. Having chronic back pain myself I have a lot of sympathy for anyone out there going through this. Please can the advice, to help them, cover a much better range of jobs and manual handling techniques. This is another area that my workplace could improve on too but I won't go into that.

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jenn123xxoo said on 11 September 2014

You should check a golf ball muscle roller, it really did wonders for my sore back, feels better than a massage!

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joshbrock said on 01 March 2013

Thank you for this simple but very helpful tips. Actually, I also experienced back pain at work because of the long hours working in my laptop computer at my desk. Just recently, my friend introduced me a laptop table tray and I'm loving it. The back pains I previously experienced due to sitting all day in my desk had been greatly reduced because I can now work on a standing work desk when sitting becomes agonizing.

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sinus symptoms said on 01 October 2010

even i myself have the back pain problem since i was in school.In my case i think that the posture have been the major issue.I get very frustrated and annoyed at this times.I apply ointments but it just give me temporary relief.

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Judy2 said on 28 April 2010

I have a problem with chronic lower back pain, and sciatica. I am over 50 and work part time for the NHS. I returned to work after being on long term incapacity benefit and took advantage of the New Deal For Disabled people, as my condition had been recognised as chronic and disabling. I love my job, but I am off sick with annoying regularity with sciatica. It is tolerated at work, but it may become a problem before too long. My GP aknowledged I have a long standing problem, but is not very proactive in terms of helping me to get a further diagnosis to determine if anything can be done to at least help with the sciatica. An MRI is out of the question unless I am willing to consider back surgery if it was recommended. So after taking the governments incentive originally to get off benefits and get back to work, what is the 'Plan' for those who have done this, but still find they are having a lot of sickness days off ? Employers are varied with their sympathy on something like a back problem, and I am lucky I work for the NHS, but there will come a time that my situation will be reviewed, and I may face redeployment. I want to work, I have an ongoing back problem, but I do not feel that I am being helped very much to stay in a job, whilst coping with back pain. I just feel guilty that I have to be off work periodically, and you know some people at work have hinted at me giving up and medically retire. But that is me between a rock and a hard place. I do not know what to do for the best. Is there anyone else who followed the governments plan to get off sickness benefits, and back to work, but are finding it hard to maintain a good work record ? Thank you for reading.

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backache said on 06 January 2010

didn't really help! what about teaching assistants who get child size stools to sit on!?How would you fit an adult size/height chair in a busy, crowded classroom?maybe it's why so many TAs get back problems.Schools should all be looking at this-they need to look after the staff so they can look after the children!

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Pam said on 13 August 2008

i work in the childcare profession and believe me lifting and carrying babies and toddlers in and out of cots and pushchairs is a real PAIN! Any tips please?

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bexxy said on 23 June 2008

I've gotta say I just don't agree with the last post- i'm in an office but l my back pain was a lot worse when i was a student. my aches now are mild and occasional but a succesion of rubbish jobs- waitress, barmaid and working in a clothesshop- used to leave me hobbling round like a granny- ouch!

i was looking more for general posture tips and if other chair types are better at improving your posture- but gotta say when you are at a desk at least you have the option to stand and walk round

I remember every grim weekends standing round aching for nearly no money :@

aswell why is this box so small, i can't read all my words of wisdom LOL

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Anonymous said on 18 June 2008

I beg to differ with all of you. I work in an office and have never had more pain than with this job. I was in a job prior to this one where I was more active and had less back pain. So for all of you that think that office workers have it easy try sitting for 6-8 hours straight at a desk behind a computer and then please tell me your back didn't hurt at all.

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donna said on 08 June 2008

yep ,i totally agree with shiela.therapies teach you strategies of helping you manage the pain ,but ultimately ,the pain is yours and you have to deal with it - and it in your life.

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sheila said on 08 June 2008

back pain if you suffer with this regular or long term there is no cure so dont waste time buying things to try and help get rid of it as they wont work. at the end of the day you have to live with the pain the back stretches,medication,relaxation will be the only things that will help you to manage the pain so that you can live with it better. everyone looks for a cure untill you realise there isnt going to be one then you have to find ways to enable you to live with it. I know from experience.

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Sean said on 29 May 2008

Much of the information in here is orientated to those who work in non-manual trades, I do think that the NHS site needs to take into account that 'Office Workers' are epidemiologicaly the least likely to suffer from health problems related to work.

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not in the office said on 22 May 2008

i work in a warehouse but i was hoping this would tell me how stop my back pains from walking all day. i only sit on a forklift or at a desk for about a hour a day but this is just for people in the office. if i worked in an office i wouldnt get back pains! you can tell this is written by someone who works in an office

useless really

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