How to Avoid Back Pain When Working from Home

If sitting at your home office desk is causing you pain, you’re not alone.

As the world slowly begins to transition to the post-pandemic era, not everything is going to go back to “normal.” One of the few good things to come out of the pandemic is the widespread adoption of remote work, and for many professionals, it seems to be here to stay. While the benefits of ditching your commute and wearing sweatpants to work speak for themselves, remote work also comes with a distinct set of challenges. For many home office workers, foremost among these is the back pain that comes from sitting in front of a computer all day, possibly on a non-ergonomic chair, on your couch or in bed. For expert advice, we consulted Dr. Stuart McGill, Professor Emeritus of kinesiology at the University of Waterloo and author of Back Mechanic. Here’s what we learned.

Your spine and you

The spine and all of its attendant discs, tissues and muscles is an exceptionally complex system with several pain mechanisms, says Dr. McGill, so unfortunately there’s no one-size-fits-all treatment for back pain. “If someone offers to give you a simple answer to your back pain without performing a decent assessment, I’d run the other way because they’re not an expert,” he says. Instead, to understand why your back hurts you first need to take into account several factors, including your level of physical fitness, home office setup and daily habits.

The source of back pain

“Pain isn’t normal, it’s an indicator that something in the system is being overloaded,” McGill says. The source of much back pain, he explains, is crossing a tipping point at which your spine is holding more load than it can comfortably bear. That point is going to be different for everyone, and you can cross it just as easily doing everyday tasks at home as lifting too much weight at the gym, depending on your body. For many of us, however, there’s a good chance that the cause of our back pain is linked to one common factor: sitting in front of a computer all day. “Sitting isn’t easy on you if you do a lot of it,” says McGill. Back pain, he explains, results from overloading your spine in any one of four ways: load, magnitude, duration and repetition. Sitting, he says, is equivalent to holding a static, low-level load for hours, and it’s this combination of a light load over a long duration that contributes to this common category of back pain.

Walk it off

As complex as the problem is, however, for many people with back pain resulting from sitting the antidote can be surprisingly simple: frequent short walks. “The faster you’re triggered by back pain when you sit, the more frequent the walks and the shorter the duration,” McGill says. “It’s not a matter of going for a 2-hour hike – that will guarantee back pain for some people – but if you have a 10-minute walk after breakfast, a 10-minute walk after lunch, a 10-minute walk after dinner and a 10-minute walk before bed, that might be the best exposure you could get to mitigate back pain.”

Mix it up

Of course, what you sit on is also part of the puzzle, and some chairs may be better than others for your back. One thing, however, is true regardless: variation helps. “When I was working at the university I had three different chairs in my office and I would rotate between them,” McGill says. Switching up your seating, he explains, is similar to working different muscle groups on different days at the gym. “Now that I’m retired I do physical heavy work every day, but I don’t do the same thing two days in a row. So I’m always stimulating and creating the adaptation to get stronger and more resilient rather than accumulating stress.” Similarly, he says, sit-stand desks migrate stress from one supporting back tissue to another and help any single part of your back from getting overloaded by sitting all day.

Have a ball

Inflatable ball chairs, he says, can be a part of the mix, too, within limits. “If you sit on a yoga ball, you use different muscles, and it assists you to align your spine in an upright posture,” McGill says. “It’s a nice break to reduce that stress on your discs, but don’t sit on it for a long period.” For a simple fix to make any chair at home more back-friendly (or a car or airplane seat for that matter), he suggests investing in an inflatable lumbar support pillow.

Each of these solutions are just one tool among many that will help make your WFH setup more comfortable, and let you enjoy the perks of remote working pain-free.


Stuart McGill

Dr. Stuart M. McGill is a professor emeritus, University of Waterloo, where he has taught for 30 years. He is a world-renowned expert in low back disorders who researches and teaches how the low back functions, and how it can become injured.