The typical desk position leads to pain and many problems

Sitting, Desk Jobs and Upper Back Pain

Today we have unprecedented – and seemingly unlimited – access to powerful information and communication technology. This has allowed us a level of engagement and freedom previously unheard of and has brought huge advances for civilisation as a whole. This article will not argue anything against that; if anything, this book only reinforces the fact! The problem is, however, that all this technology may not be entirely in line with the requirements of human anatomy, physiology and ergonomics just yet.

Given this unparalleled influx of personal technology usage, and the fact that the first generation to grow up using smartphones, laptops and tablets is now reaching an age where spinal issues are becoming prevalent, it is not surprising just how much research there is regarding the health impact of our technology habits. Since the year 2000, nearly 3,000 research papers have been published related to health issues specifically as it pertains to smartphone use, for example.

The problem is, when we interact with these devices we are often sitting or stationery and tend to hunch our shoulders and slouch. The greatest side effects are seen, therefore, in the cervical spine, because the acting kinematics are significantly altered once the head is positioned in a forward, bended posture. While a short time in this posture won’t hurt by any means, as the saying goes, constant dripping wears the stone. The weight of the head increases the pressure on the cervical spine exponentially when bended forward and it is the accumulating hours we rest in such a position day after day that leads to the recent influx of patients with cervical spine issues and chronic neck pain.

A systematic review published in 2017 looked at results from 15 studies and found that up to 67.8% of people using handheld devices had musculoskeletal complaints, with neck pain being the most common symptom (Xie et al., 2017). Excessive use in young adults points to what we can expect in the years to come, though these rates will likely be even more dramatic in the future. Swedish men 20-24 years old had up to a 200% increase in the likelihood of symptoms in the neck and upper extremities when compared to their older counterparts (Gustafsson et al., 2017).

Postural changes aside, the use of technology affects the body in other ways. For a number of reasons, we tend to hold our breath while texting, which reduces tissue oxygenation and increases muscle tension. Given the overall importance of proper breathing habits for one’s health, learning to breathe consistently when using the phone may become something we all just have to learn (Lin et al., 2009). While this false breathing pattern could be relatively easy to correct, the overall compromising effect on sitting and our lungs seems to be a whole different subject, which we must learn to decipher.

About the Author 

Eric SoehngenEric Soehngen, M.D., Ph.D. is a German physician and specialist in Internal Medicine. With his company Walkolution, he battles the negative health effects that sitting has on the human body. 


Walkolution develops ergonomically optimized treadmill desks, which help to bring more movement into the daily work routine in the office or home office.

Photo credit: Deb Kennedy

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