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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