Physiotherapist Nordawama Ahmad Ali explains how physiotherapy can manage and resolve musculoskeletal pains as a result of prolonged sitting and poor posture.

Whether we are behind a desk, on the couch binge-watching Netflix or driving for hours, we spend a lot of time sitting down, and our body suffers for it. Our sedentary lifestyles do not only put us at higher risk of diabetes and poor cardiovascular health, but also aches and pains.

Studies show that prolonged sitting at work without breaks is associated with an increased risk of poor general health and back/neck pain.

Nordawama Ahmad Ali (Dawa), Physiotherapist at BenPhysio

Nordawama Ahmad Ali (Dawa), Physiotherapist at BenPhysio

Nordawama Ahmad Ali (Dawa), Physiotherapist at BenPhysio, says, “When we sit, our quad (quadriceps femoris) muscles are in a shortened position. This is not an ideal posture for the human body, but because we spend a majority of time in this position, our body sends signals to our brain that this is the desired posture. This alters our body’s biomechanics, and instead of utilising our core and gluteal muscles as we were designed to, we strain our quads and quadratus lumborum (back muscles).”

“Additionally, when we are driving or sitting at the computer, we overuse our pectorals which leads to incremental stress on both the head and neck. These little things add up when it comes to posture-related pains,” she explains.

On average, we sit for about eight to 10 hours a day at least, which equals about 70 hours a week, and a whopping 3,650 hours a year! That is a lot of time for our muscles to spend in awkward positions that they were not designed to be in.

Studies show that up to 63% of office workers experience neck pain, and up to 34% experience back pain over a period of 12 months. Additionally, chronic spinal pain was found to lead to both physical and psychological problems for individuals, including a reduced range of motions, muscle weakness, disability, depression and reduced quality of life.

What happens when you overstrain a muscle?

Overburdened and overstrained muscles become tight or stiff, and in the long run this can result in reduced range of motion and/or difficulty moving, sometimes accompanied by cramps, pain, or weakness.

“When a particular muscle in your body is too tight, it lacks mobility and if too loose, it lacks strength. A damaged muscle ‘recruits’ the nearest muscle to assist it to perform or complete the task or maintain the same position. Over time, the strain accumulates and manifests in acute or chronic aches in our neck, shoulder, and/or lower back,” explains Dawa.

“Very often, the pain can occur away from the site of the root cause, because our muscles are interconnected, for example, a neck/shoulder pain could be caused by poor sitting posture or a weak core.”

How physiotherapy can help with aches and pains

Physiotherapy is a treatment that helps restore movement and function when someone is affected by injury, illness, or disability. Physiotherapists use their knowledge and skills to improve a range of conditions associated with different systems in the body such as neurological (stroke, multiple sclerosis, etc), musculoskeletal (back pain, whiplash, sports injuries, etc), cardiovascular and respiratory (asthma, cystic fibrosis, stoke, etc).

Taking a holistic approach, physiotherapy aims to improve the patient’s physical activity while helping prevent future injuries.

“We focus on investigating and pinpointing the root cause of your pain and try to loosen your muscles from the deepest layer, using a combination of techniques, such as soft tissue massages like myofascial release, mobilisation, manipulations, dry-needling, and exercises that are tailored to each individual needs. Unlike a massage that only loosens the superficial layer of muscles, physiotherapy treats the deeper layers that significantly affect the body’s biomechanics,” explains Dawa.

How to reduce aches/pains from prolonged sitting and poor posture

While most of us cannot avoid sitting for prolonged hours, there are some ways to minimise our risk of aches and pains, shares Dawa:

  1. After sitting for 30-60 minutes, get out of the chair, walk around for about 1 minute or perform simple stretching exercises before returning to your seat. Compared to sitting all the time, sitting less than 75% of the time and breaking up workplace sitting occasionally, have been shown to significantly lower risks for poor general health.
  2. Do the opposite of what your muscles are usually engaged in. If you’re a runner or power lift regularly, then incorporate more stretching or yoga into your routine, and vice versa. Muscles require strength and flexibility, so ensure you have a good balance of both in your routine.
  3. A strong core is important, as it is the foundation that supports your abdomen and maintains good posture. Weak core muscles can significantly reduce arm and leg strength. It’s important to note that having a visible six-pack does not necessarily indicate a strong core, as the six-pack is simply the topmost (superficial) layer of the rectus abdominis muscle.
  4. Visit a physiotherapist once or twice a year, just for maintenance. You don’t have to wait for an injury or chronic pain to see a physiotherapist. Physiotherapy can help to readjust and realign the body’s biomechanics and restore balance to ensure optimal function. They can also teach you to recognise and ‘switch on’ your core muscles by introducing simple core exercises.

Simple stretches to loosen tight muscles
Some simple stretches that can be done almost anywhere, to loosen tight quads, quadratus lumborum and pectoral muscles include:

Pecs stretch

Place your forearm/wrist against the wall. Your shoulder must be flat/90 degrees, with one leg leaning forward. This can be done against any wall or in the doorway.

Calf stretch

Stand on the edge of a stepper/stair, or on an incline board.

Chin tuck-stretch

Bring your chin in backwards (but not downwards towards your chest). For beginners, practice the exercise in front of a mirror first to ensure you are doing the right motion as it can be easy to confuse the backward and downward motion.

Note: Each stretch needs to be held for a minimum of 10 seconds for it to be effective. The tighter your muscles are, the more often and for more repetitions the stretches should be done.


Featured photo by Dreamstime, all other photos courtesy of BenPhysio@Bangsar