I see a lot of patients who come for treatment with neck and back related pain. I feel a large component of pain in the head, neck and lower back area comes down to prolonged, sustained periods of sitting. Whether it be for work, school or driving, sitting for too long a period puts a lot of strain on muscular and ligamentous structures within the body.
An example I like to use with patients is the analogy of a rubber band, using this as a comparison to the elastic type nature of the tissue within muscles and ligaments. I use this to explain the importance of regular posture changes or getting up from prolonged periods of sitting.
The analogy goes like this…. When you apply a slow sustained stretch to a rubber band, the band will eventually reach a point where it will develop small little cracks or tears within the rubber. If you now realise that you have damaged the band and release the tension, it is too late, the damage has already been done.
If we now look at the body and compare this to what happens when we sit in the same position for long periods, the same principle applies. With prolonged sitting the elastic-type tissue in the neck and back will slowly stretch and stretch (we call this the creep effect in the physio world). If this tissue in the neck and back isn’t offloaded or released, this could eventually lead to the development of small tears within the tissue which would actually affect the structure of the tissue (we call this hysteresis). The overstretching and changes within the tissue could lead to inflammation. This is when the person sitting for too long would start to feel pain or discomfort in the neck/ back. Changes to the tension in the neck area could even lead to tension-type headache.
Now let’s take this back to the rubber band comparison again and the cracks/ tears that occur with overstretching. We realise that by the time we release the tension, the damage has already been done. Now in the body, if we wait for pain to start before changing positions, you can see that the “damage” has already been done.
Going back to the rubber band again, if we applied a stretch to the band but every few seconds release the tension and start again, this is likely to not cause damage to the elastic. This is because before the rubber has a chance to get overstretched/ damaged, the tension is released.
If we can regularly get up and move around for a few seconds periodically instead of waiting for pain to start before doing this, we can actually avoid overstretching/ micro-damage to the elastic tissue within our ligaments and muscles in the neck and back.
The hardest part about doing this is just getting into the routine of doing this regularly.
My advice to anyone siting for prolonged periods (usually around 20-30mins) is to routinely get up and move around, even for just a few seconds. This will give the elastic tissue in the body a chance to offload and reset and counter the effects of sitting for prolonged periods.