Whether you experience it as a sharp, searing pain or a dull ache, lower back pain can be serious business. Four out of five adults experience it at one point or another.
Lower back pain is defined as pain in the vertebrae designated L1 through L5 — these comprise the part of the spine that curves inward at the base.
A common reason your back may hurt is from bad posture while seated. Sitting in a slouched or hunched over position can put strain on the discs — the fluid-filled cushions that protect the vertebrae from rubbing together.
This may be worsened by an underlying medical condition. Let’s explore the possible causes of back pain you feel while you’re sitting and what you can do about it.
Causes of lower back pain when sitting down
Not all back pain is the same, and there are many possible causes.
Sciatica refers to pain in the sciatic nerve, which runs down the base of the spine into the back of your legs. It can be caused by various conditions, including a bone spur on the spine.
The pain can be anything from a dull aching sensation to what feels like an electric shock. Sitting for long periods can make it worse, but you’ll usually only have it on one side.
Pain in your lower back is one of the first things you’ll experience if you have a herniated disc. Pressure on your disc has caused it to push out of its normal shape.
This puts strain on the spinal cord and nerves in the area, causing pain and even numbness.
Older people often get a herniated disc as a natural part of the aging process. It can also happen as the result of a fall, lifting something the wrong way, or a repetitive motion injury.
A muscle strain in the lower back is also called a lumbar strain. It occurs when you overstretch or twist your back too much.
If you have a muscle strain, you may experience pain that extends down into your buttocks but not your legs. A strain will also make your back stiff and hard to move.
While most people recover from a strain within one month, it can also become an ongoing problem if it’s due to poor sitting posture and you don’t take steps to correct it.
Degenerative disc disease
When the discs between the bones in the lower spine are damaged, it’s called lumbar or degenerative disc disease.
Discs degenerate in older people, and injuries can cause the annulus fibrosis to tear. The annulus fibrosus is what holds the nucleus pulpous, the soft center of each disc, in place.
When this part of the disc tears, the disc can’t heal itself because it doesn’t have much blood supply. The soft material in the center may then leave its normal confines. It could protrude backward and compress a nerve root, resulting in pain that radiates down into the limbs.
Although some people who have degenerative disc disease don’t have symptoms at all, the pain can be quite severe in the lower back, buttocks, and thighs, and it may get worse when you bend or sit.
The bones in the spine each have a hole in the middle that form a tube through which the spinal cord runs. This connects the nerves throughout your body to your brain.
When that tube isn’t wide enough, the cord gets squeezed and can cause pain, weakness, or numbness. This is called spinal stenosis.
Spinal stenosis can be the result of an injury, arthritis, a tumor, or an infection. Some people are born with a narrow spinal canal.
Bad posture while either sitting or standing can contribute to lower back pain. Slouching forward too much or leaning too far back can create problems.
Even if your back pain isn’t caused by poor posture, it can be made worse by it.
Not being in shape
Your core muscles include the ones on your sides and in your back, hips, abdomen, and buttocks. If these are weak, they may not be supporting your spine well enough, leading to pain.
Stretching and aerobic exercise can go a long way toward helping strengthen your core. This should lessen your discomfort by reducing the degree of strain on your back.
Other medical conditions
Sometimes your lower back may hurt because of another condition. This can include kidney stones, a gallbladder issue, and in rare cases, a tumor or problem with your main abdominal artery.
Upper back pain when sitting
Many people experience pain in their necks and upper backs as a result of craning forward while sitting to look at a computer monitor or phone display. Although it’s tempting to sprawl out and watch television for hours, this can also easily throw your back out of alignment.
That uncomfortable feeling of stiffness when you finally do move or stand up is telling you something.
Best sitting position for lower back pain
Better posture makes a difference.
It’s likely your parents or teachers cautioned you to sit up straight when you were a child, and with good reason.
Sitting in one position too long isn’t healthy. Doing it with your back rounded forward, slumped to one side, or leaning too far back can put stress on parts of your spine for an extended period. This can lead to pain, as well as other issues.
To help you sit straighter, position your body along an imaginary straight line extending the length of your back, out of your head, and up to the ceiling. Keep your shoulders level and don’t let your pelvis rotate forward. Doing so causes a curve in your lower back.
If you sit up perfectly straight, you’ll feel the small of your back stretch and lengthen.
Home remedies for lower back pain when sitting
In addition to improving your posture when sitting, try these at-home remedies for lower back pain:
- Change your position. Consider a standing desk or one that’s ergonomically designed to help you maintain good posture by allowing you to adjust the height of your monitor.
- Apply ice. Cold helps reduce inflammation that may be affecting your back. Leave the ice pack on for about 20 minutes, and then remove it. You can do this every hour or so.
- Use a heating pad. After any inflammation is under control (about 24 hours or so), many people find heat soothing. It also promotes healing by bringing blood to your back.
- Take over-the-counter medication. Pain relievers like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can reduce discomfort and swelling.
- Use a support. Placing a rolled-up towel or special lumbar pillow at the base of your spine while sitting will help you remember to sit up straight and provide you with some stability.
- Get a massage. This can help loosen and relax tight muscles.
- Consider yoga. Yoga is known for its ability to stretch and strengthen the body. Many programs allow for modification of the poses as needed.
Stretches and exercise
There are several exercises that will help strengthen your lower back. Try these three stretching exercises to help make your back stronger and better toned:
- Get into pushup position with your forearms on the ground.
- Keeping your elbows in line with your shoulders, push up onto your forearms and toes, keeping your back straight and your elbows on the ground.
- Hold for a few seconds, and then lower yourself to the floor.
The bird dog
- Get on your hands and knees, keeping your back straight.
- Extend one leg and the opposite arm straight out.
- Hold for five seconds, and then rest.
- Alternate with the other leg and arm.
- Lie on your back with your arms by your sides.
- Gradually lift your hips using your back, buttocks, and abdominal muscles.
- Hold for five seconds, and then relax.
Doctors may recommend the following treatments for lower back pain:
- physical therapy, which helps build up muscle strength to support your back
- nerve blockers and steroid injections for pain relief
- acupuncture and laser therapy, which may relieve pain without surgery
- medications, such as muscle relaxers, antidepressants, and other analgesics
Surgery is usually considered a last resort, and opioid medicines aren’t viable long-term solutions.
When to see a doctor
While lower back pain usually clears up with exercise and better sitting posture, you should see a doctor if:
- the pain is persistent and doesn’t seem to be getting better
- you have tingling or numbness in your back or legs
- you have a fever
- you’re unusually weak
- you lose bladder or bowel function
- you’re losing weight
Lower back pain is a common problem, and while it’s likely to get worse as we age, there are things we can do to protect and strengthen our backs.
While it’s a natural tendency to want to rest our backs by sitting rather than standing, in many cases it’s bad sitting posture that’s contributing to the problem.
Being mindful of maintaining a correct sitting position, keeping core muscles toned to support the spine, and seeing a doctor when the problem is severe or persistent will help keep your back in its best possible shape.