Back and Spine Health in Desk Jobs

Back pain is one of the most common reasons for people to see a doctor or miss work [1]. Symptoms can range in intensity, affect people of all ages, and be caused by a variety of factors, including scoliosis, sprains, traumatic injuries, degenerative diseases, consistent poor posture, and inactivity [1,2]. In particular, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke identifies extended periods of working at a desk as a risk factor for back pain [1]. Though “preventing all back pain may not be possible,” Dr. Daniel Park states that certain behaviors “help reduce our risk” [3]. These behaviors are related to the increasingly sedentary and inactive lifestyle of many Americans, which is “linked to approximately $117 billion in annual health care costs and about 10 percent of premature mortality” [4]. A major contributor to these trends is the prevalence of office jobs. Working at a desk can have significant effects on overall back and spine health. 

The spine, and back in general, is a complex system of 33 vertebrae, intervertebral discs that help absorb shock, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and nerves [1]. Maintaining the strength of the overall system and minimizing asymmetry is important for physical function. For example, weak core muscles weaken the back overall and also may drive forward slouching. A study in the European Spine Journal found that “slump posture” while using a computer or watching TV were associated with chronic low back pain [5]. In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has published recommendations for office workstations, such as using desk chairs that adequately support the back and positioning the computer monitor, keyboard, and desk at natural positions [6]. 

When seeking medical advice for back health, diagnosing the condition(s) underlying back pain usually involve a comprehensive medical history, physical exam, and occasionally further tests. However, it is not always possible to determine the cause, and pain that does not stem from a straightforward, acute injury may be more complicated to treat [1]. Such situations require a gradual approach, starting with less invasive and cost-effective treatments and only moving on to more aggressive options if needed. Self-management strategies include exercises to strengthen core muscles, which can balance out extended periods of relative inactivity in a desk job. Acupuncture, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, and chiropractic spinal manipulation and mobilization can often provide relief; research demonstrates that chiropractic care is beneficial for chronic low back pain. Surgery, a more advanced care option, is not always successful, may involve long recovery time, and involves significant risks [1]. 

Prevention and proactive management of back health are critical for those who work at desks or in other sedentary jobs. Many work-related injuries are “caused or aggravated by stressors such as … awkward posture” [1]. The Mayo Clinic recommends workers to “pay attention to posture”, “modify repetitive tasks”, and “listen to your body” [2]. It is important to regularly strengthen muscles through exercise; maintain a healthy weight, as an imbalance between body weight and strength “puts added pressure on your spine and lower back”; use ergonomic equipment; periodically move and stretch to relieve tension; and maintain proper posture [1-3]. Dr. Park adds, “Make sure your working surface is the proper height so you don’t have to lean forward,” and, “Once an hour, stand and stretch” [4]. 

Back pain is a common condition that can impair daily activities and quality of life. Back and spine health is damaged by poor posture, inactivity, and muscle loss, all of which are common in desk jobs. 


1. Office of Communications and Public Liaison. “Low Back Pain Fact Sheet,” (2020). National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Disorders, Patient & Caregiver Education, Fact Sheets. Available: 

2. Mayo Clinic Staff. “Back pain at work: Preventing pain and injury,” (2019). Mayo Clinic, Health Lifestyle, Adult Health. Available: 

3. Park DK. “Preventing Back Pain at Work and at Home,” (2017). American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, OrthoInfo, Staying Healthy. Available: 

4. Olson RD, Piercy KL, Troiano RP, et al. “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans,” (2018). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Available: 

5. Filho NM, Coutinho ES, & e Silva GA. “Association between home posture habits and low back pain in high school adolescents,” (2015). European Spine Journal. Available: 

6. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “Workstation components,” (n.d.). U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Computer Workstations eTools. Available: