People are often surprised to see me sitting on a yoga ball. It’s not the conventional therapist’s armchair.
My job, perhaps similar to yours, involves sitting for eight hours a day in therapy sessions. I spend additional time sitting at my computer, making calls and, prior to COVID-19, on a long commute too.
If you add meal times and Netflix and deduct exercise, almost all of my waking hours are spent seated.
I had back pain on and off for years. My chiropractor and physical therapist helped, but the pain always returned. The consequences were devastating. Days off work lying in bed with a pillow under my knees. Surgery. Medication. Hours spent having my back manipulated, mobilized or exercised.
“My eureka moment happened after a three-week vacation.”
My eureka moment happened after a three-week vacation. I woke up one morning in Bali, pleasantly pain-free. One week after returning to work, however, the pain was back. Then it hit me. I was injuring my back by sitting.
Desk jobs are clearly associated with lower back pain. One reason is that sitting immobilizes the finely articulated joints of your back – there is nothing worse than immobility for joint health. If you’ve ever had a cast on your arm, you’ll recall how stiff your joints were after the cast came off.
The second reason is that when you’re sitting, there is more pressure on the front of the disc, so you risk injury. From the picture below, you can clearly see how the back is sharply angled at the base when sitting at a desk.
The second advantage is that sitting on a round ball means that you’re always moving a little, back and forth and from side to side. So the back never freezes up. It is these small movements that keep the facet joints between vertebrae sliding.Contrast this with sitting on a yoga ball, as shown in the first photograph. Sitting on a ball forces you to sit up at least 15 degrees straighter. Pressure on the lower back is reduced. Note how, when sitting on a yoga ball, the shoulders are less rounded and the neck looks healthier too.
What are the disadvantages of sitting on a yoga ball? One is that you have to engage your core. If it’s weak or you forget that you are on a ball, you may fall off. That is mostly embarrassing. You also may have to explain to curious onlookers why you’re sitting on a ball. Some may think you’re odd at first but you will be surprised how many others share their lower back pain stories with you.
It’s a good lead into discussing the relationship between chronic back pain and depression. Yes, it is very likely that if you have lower back pain, you will also start feeling depressed at some point. This is especially true if you have to sit in order to earn your paycheck, but sitting paradoxically makes your pain worse. It’s a catch-22.
My advice: unless you are really tall, order a small-sized ball so that your feet are squarely on the ground. Buy a large bicycle pump. The small plastic foot pumps that come with these balls are not effective. If you can wedge your feet against a desk or blocks, that helps too. Buy a ball that feels more rubbery rather than the smooth plastic ones.
Given Covid-19, we are spending hours more at our desks as we work virtually. Investing in a yoga ball may be a solution to your lower back aches – it may help your depression too.
Welcome to my Psychiatry Collaborative Care Center. It’s the first of its kind in New York. My mission is to provide you with empathic care that improves your overall wellness, both mental and physical.