There is so much said about how we should all be sitting better. Unfortunately when you were growing up you may not have had much education about how and why you should be sitting in a particular way, other than “sit up straight!” As a result over time we adopt new patterns and ways of sitting, and because we do this so often these new patterns feel normal and then sitting correctly can feel uncomfortable or even painful because you are not used to it and neither are your postural muscles. But do you know what is going on in your body when you are slouching and why sitting in a back friendly way is so important? This article aims to increase your understanding on what is happening in your spine.
Firstly I will back track slightly and give you a whistle stop anatomy tour. Our spines are made up of vertebrae which change in shape and name relating to the areas they are in. In the neck region there are 7 cervical vertebrae, next the thoracic region has 12 vertebrae with a rib attaching either side of each one, then we have 5 lumbar vertebrae followed by the sacrum which is fused as adults and positioned between the bones of the pelvis and terminates with the coccyx.
If you then look from the side the cervical region curves inwards towards the front of our body this is known as lordosis. This curve is formed when, as babies we start to lift and support the weight of our own heads. The thoracic area curves slightly outwards, called as a kyphosis. There is then a lordotic curve in the lumbar region and another kyphotic in the sacral region. These curves are important because they make our spine stronger and able to dissipate the forces imposed upon it. As a result of these curves, the joints between one vertebrae and the next change as you go through each region. By sitting in positions that go against our natural curves we increase pressure and strain on the joints of our spine.
When we sit particularly for longer periods we all have the tendency to “relax” or sit in uneven positions, but there are consequences to this. Sitting in a flexed or slouched position causes a reduced activity in the muscles that run along the front of the spine. It also causes something called creep, which is where one vertebrae slides back on top of the other, putting pressure on the joints, ligaments, muscles along the back of the spine and importantly increasing pressure on the discs. Repeated sitting in a flexed position has been shown to instigate disc herniation. Research has shown that creep starts within 15 minutes of sustained flexion. Taking into account how often we sit every single day whether at home, work or in the car, you can begin to understand the demands you are putting on your back.
There is a wider picture here that goes beyond the changes in your spine itself when you are sitting. Increased flexion also lowers muscle activity to the deeper abdominal or core muscles, in comparison to sitting upright and standing. We all concentrate on obtaining the elusive flatter stomach but by slouching we are only helping to achieve the opposite!
Also by slouching we are compressing our stomachs and our internal organs, which over time could impede their functions – they are called vital organs for a reason, they are essential for our survival. Coupled with the fact that the joint laxities resulting from creep compromises stability for a substantial time after you have changed position, no wonder we get back pain. This means that if you sit in a slouched posture the spine is more unstable so leaves you at risk of injuring your back even when doing something seemingly innocuous such as picking up that pen off the floor! This type of sitting for long periods I am sure contributes to a large percentage of back problems and is often a big factor in problems that seem to come out of nowhere. As I saw on a poster for the Backcare charity – damaged caused at 0mph!
I hope this gives you a much better idea of what is happening inside your body if you are slouching, and why it is important to sit in the way our spines are designed. By all means I am not saying that you have to sit as if you were educated at a Swiss finishing school all the time. Sitting should be active so keep changing position, remember to sit up tall, thinking of lifting or lengthening at the front of your body can put you in a better position. Sit up so that you can feel your sitting bones are under you and you are putting even pressure through them. If your sofa or chair is very deep use a cushion(s) to support your back, alternatively there are many back care products available to assist better sitting including back supports, seat wedges, inflatable cushions and much more.