Swivel Chairs and Back Pain

Richard K. Yu
Feb 3 · 5 min read

An unlikely culprit may be the cause of your lumbago.

I enjoy my swivel chair.

Some companies seem to want to spend upwards of $500 on certain brands of these chairs to allow better comfort and thus productivity, so the logic goes.

But, I also enjoy feeling like there’s absolutely nothing wrong with my body: like it’s just me and my perception of the world, without some weird untraceable pain.

And unfortunately, this unlikely culprit of lower back pain may indeed by a swivel chair. An article published by the DFW Center for Spinal Disorders explains the concept of why this may be the case. In brief:

“….when your chair doesn’t provide lumbar support, it’s difficult to maintain correct posture. Without support, your lumbar spine and the large muscles in your lower back have to work to support the proper spine curvature and alignment. Over the day, as the body tires, the muscles holding the spine in the correct position weaken. To compensate, we tend to push our head and upper back forward. This forward lean leads to more muscle tension and eventual back pain.”

So, do swivel chairs or chairs in general (i.e. maybe you might be too sedentary) cause more back issues over time, or is it more of a function of how you sit: what’s really going on here?

There’s a good breakdown of possible back pain issues and causes by Paul Spector MD here:

Like most people, if I can spare the effort, then I want to make sure that all parts of my body are in their best shape.

Upon reflection, how often do you find yourself drifting towards thoughts geared towards taking a break after a long, continuous period of effort that run along these lines:

  • Got a few extra hours? Let’s hit the gym.
  • Been in your room too long? Time to go see a movie with a friend or go for a scenic ride.
  • Feeling restless? Why not go for a timed run?
  • Is your brain worn out from a monotonous, deadening day of procrastination? It’s time to set some goals and develop better self care habits!

Yet, what if the issue is compounding or chronic?

Worse yet, what if you can’t locate the exact reason why?

In an extreme case, there was actually a woman who thought that her doctor boyfriend was drugging her during certain moments, only to find out though Reddit that she had an infestation of bed bugs and that continuous bed bug bites over a sustained period of time cause confusion, memory loss, and paranoia.

Imagine that!

Check out the full details of the story here.

Anyways, what I’m going to be discussing is nothing like that. Instead, I want to discuss the pattern of behaviors where you tell yourself that it’s a minor issue that will go away if you give it some time, then it doesn’t.

Then you convince yourself into thinking that it won’t get worse — and it does.

You can see where this is going.

Often, it seems like there’s always one or two small things that really bother me. These things are annoying because I can feel them, but at the same time the feeling is too vague to pinpoint to a specific cause.

What we’d wish for to be able to sleep like a baby again, right? As weird as it sounds, it’s like having an itch without having an itch, but around the area of my lower back.

Now, I’ve tried a number of common sense approaches to address this source of “ghost discomfort” including sitting in a number of different positions, stretching, yoga, exercise, standing breaks, and finally even massages.

The best case scenario is that a get relief for a few hours before I’m back to square one. The worst part is that the annoyance comes because the feeling isn’t discrete or traceable. It gets to the point where sometimes I wonder if regular pain would be preferable. Horrifyingly infuriating, I know.

I’m not sure how many people relate to this, but sometimes I want to relax so I lie down on my bed, and this weird sense that my spine is tensing or curving manifests. It’s actually the most frustrating thing in the world — my inability to even lie down peacefully without minor discomfort.

At this point, I’m thrilled that at least I can still fall asleep.

At any rate, this isn’t a piece about my personal grievances and mild struggles with back pain, it’s about what I think contributes greatly to it: my fancy new swivel chair.

I get a bit inventive and in weird positions when I sit in a really comfortable chair — I abuse it really.

How many of you sit without your feet touching the ground or lean your feet against something?

Mayo Clinic has some things to say about that — for all of you extreme recliners and chair contortionists.

It made sense to me — it probably wasn’t only the chair, but how I was sitting in it.

So, I started thinking that this newfound freedom of my swivel chair was actually is the cause of my seemingly ghostly lumbago.

Counterintuively, I switched out for one of the regular chairs I have around the house. It was uncomfortable at first, but my back pain subsided quite a bit.

But honestly at the end of the day, getting more consistent exercise would solve the issue.

For instance, maybe I just didn’t try those other solutions I mentioned above for long enough.

Disclaimer: I’m not a PT, so if you have moderate or severe back problems you probably have more things to worry about than your choice of chair.

After discovering this “secret,” I told one of my friends who tells me he wakes up to thirty minutes of back pain.

His response?

“I don’t think it’s possible for me to give up that chair.”

Just goes to show you how compelling preferences and force of habit can be sometimes, even to our detriment.

Real Life Resilience

A primer on becoming a more resilient person, stories of recovery and resilience, and resources for living a more joy-filled life.

Richard K. Yu

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Vandy '17. Analysis, opinion, and commentary | Contrarian | use richard.k.yu@vanderbilt.edu or mention me to talk!

Real Life Resilience

A primer on becoming a more resilient person, stories of recovery and resilience, and resources for living a more joy-filled life.