Back pain is a common complaint at work, especially as many jobs are performed exclusively in front of a computer. Sitting posture is a very important component of limiting that pain, but alternative sitting arrangements have also become popular in recent years. Some options, like sitting on an exercise ball, are designed to force your muscles to activate during the day, keeping you upright. But a standing desk removes the issue of sitting altogether, in the quest to eliminate postural difficulties at work.
As a chiropractor, I am often asked my opinion on this type of desk, and whether I can recommend it as a medical necessity to employers. This article sums up my current thoughts, and I will update it as new information becomes available.
Why consider a standing desk?
It is becoming increasingly clear that sitting all day is very bad for your health. This article from the Mayo Clinic described effects on your metabolism and cardiac system that arose from extended sitting time. That translated directly into deadly heart attacks, obesity and diabetes. The thought that sitting is so bad for you is relatively new. But, it makes sense based on just how much we sit compared to pre-internet times, twenty years ago. With that much at stake, reduced sitting times has important benefits for everyone. But is the answer as simple as standing up at work?
It seems logical that to reverse problems associated with too much sitting, standing should help. In fact, the British Journal of Sports Medicine published an article commissioned by public health groups that recommended adding standing and light activity to the work day, with a goal of up to half the workday spent standing. However, the science does not back up the benefits of a standing desk – yet. This Cochrane review of 20 studies on sitting vs standing at work failed to show a significant improvement in performance, pain or sick days when employees switched to a standing desk. The reviewers suggested more rigorously designed studies were needed to make a better conclusion.
Dr French’s opinion
Based on all this, my professional opinion is that a convertible sitting/standing desk is a worthwhile option for people dealing with sitting-related postural pain that is not improved with worksite changes and postural exercises. A standing-only desk is not a cure-all. Remember that people who work on their feet all day have their own set of repetitive stress injuries.
The benefit that I see is in avoiding the sustained positioning that results from sitting all day. Using the same postural muscles, in the same way, for eight hours at a time can overwork them. If we can use those muscles in a different way, periodically throughout the day, I think it makes sense that it will reduce the fatigue that builds up in those muscles, which in turn should reduce postural strain.
Anecdotally, I have heard positive reports from patients who have switched to a convertible desk. Increased energy, focus, and less pain are common results.
If you are going to make the switch
Some things to think about: prolonged standing can be made less taxing by using a standing mat that softens the surface and reduces leg fatigue. Posture needs to be thought of while standing as well. Getting a standing desk, and slumping at that, is not going to help.
I found many different types of standing desks, from automatic lifting models with computerized memory, to a $25 cardboard stand on Amazon. With a range of designs, you must take your individual work factors into consideration when choosing a desk. If you need my advice, you can contact me, or if you are near Norwalk, CT, click below to set up an appointment to discuss what can best help your pain at work.