A generation of sitting ducks and back pain.
Medically reviewed by: Dr Shaan Rai, Chiropractor
I had coffee with some friends at ToastBox the other day.
“Eh, let’s sit here, this one got back rest!” My friend exclaimed as if he found a gem. The seats at ToastBox are usually stools (with no back rests).
“Oh, good good. My back is so tired,” another friend responded.
We gladly trooped over and started chiming in about backache issues.
“My lower back is always very sore.”
“My shoulder feels so tight and stiff. That stiffness goes down to my back too.”
“My back hurts for no reason when sitting.” – proceeds to loudly crack his back –
It suddenly dawned upon me that we have reached the stage in our lives where we need appreciate backrests. It’s funny because my mum and grandma used to hunt for backrests all the time when we went out, and I didn’t see what the fuss was all about then. “Got seats can already what,” I used to say.
But seriously, back to our backpain conversation. My friends and I are in our early 30s and we were already complaining about back issues. And it’s not as if we’ve undergone 9 months of pregnancy and childbirth to warrant that. In fact, some of us are still single.
Is it a normal thing now because we spend so many hours sitting in front of our computers? Or do these backache issues point to a bigger health problem we should know about?
The backpain woes of working Singaporeans
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that our sedentary work life—sitting behind a computer with poor postures for a prolonged period of time—is probably the ultimate culprit of our backpain woes.
According to a study by Changi General Hospital (CGH), it was found that 73% of Singaporeans reported experiencing work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSD), i.e. pain in at least one of their body parts, with the top three parts being the neck, shoulder and back. 
But isn’t thirty a tad too young for back pain issues? Granted, we’ve graduated from our 20s, but we’re still considered as youths in our early 30s (right??) A quick check confirms this: the National Youth Council considers those between 15 to 35 years old youths. Alas, a study by CGH also mentions that the incidence of back pains peaks in ages 30 to 55 years old.
Other risk factors are high body mass index, frequent neck extension during the work day, high psychological job demands, high initial pain intensity—all of which can cause chronic neck and back pain to develop.
Yet most of us dismiss our backpain woes saying things like:
“Stresses of the modern society.”
“I’m working hard, that’s why. Have to OT lah.”
“It’s like that lor. I’m just very busy and tired all the time.”
Whether we are aware or not, many of us put busyness on a pedestal—even take pride in it—to the point where we self-sacrificially allow our body to work itself to the bone.
What does it say about us if we knowingly ignore all the signals our bodies are screaming at us (back pain, anxiety, burnouts), and that we knowingly ignore the fact that this would eventually culminate into a chronic health problem that could cause us a lot of time and dollars to treat when we are older?
There is something illogical and perverse in feeling good about sacrificing our health for work, and yet in our culture, we do.
Why do you have back pain: causes and symptoms
Dr. Shaan Rai from Vitality Chiropractic Centre shares that our backs are complicated, sensitive things.
The spine extends from the base of the skull all to way down to the butt. Comprising 33 separate vertebrae stacked onto each other, and cushioned by flexible discs, held together by muscles and ligaments. There’s also the spinal cord and nerves that run through the entire column.
Because of its complicated structure, the exact cause of back pain can be hard to diagnose. Most back pain problems can be chalked up to a one-off back strain, i.e. pulling, twisting or overstretching the back muscles. This should go away in a few days, after some rest and giving your back some TLC.
The scary part is having friends of the same age tell me they experience a dull ache or pain in their backs that “never goes away”. That’s another level of back pain altogether.
Backache that lasts for 12 weeks or more is defined as chronic back pain  and can be caused by a number of reasons :
- Injury to the spine, intervertebral discs, or soft tissues, such as slipped disc (the disc pops out of position and presses on a nerve).
- The joints, discs and bone become worn out with age, pressing on the nerves, causing pain to radiate from the back to the tush and thighs.
- Osteoporosis that can lead to fractures. The vertebral bone gets brittle with age and bone density progressively decreases.
- Spinal stenosis: Back pain with sensory loss and weakness in legs.
- Spinal tumors and cancerous growth: Characterised by fever, weight loss, scoliosis.
If you experience red flag symptoms like these and severe, chronic back pain issues, it’s best to seek out orthopaedic surgeons, sport medicine doctors or physiotherapists.
2 simple ways to relieve backaches, from a chiropractor
When it comes to back pain, sometimes we have to look beyond our backs itself, says Dr. Shaan. It may be due to weakness in other areas of your body, causing your back to take on all your body weight.
1. Do chest-opening and shoulder stretches
If you feel soreness or tightness in your upper back, try out some chest-opening stretches instead.
Because you are hunched over your desk all day, your chest collapses inwards, creating strain on your back. Once you open up your chest and shoulders, it takes away all the stress and tension that is going on the back.
2. Start toning your glutes and your leg muscles now
If you have issues with lower back pain, the problem could be weak and inflexible leg muscles and glutes, not your lower back per se. Our lower backs hold most of our weight and cushion impact as we walk, run and move. If our leg muscles are weak and tight, our lower backs then have to do all the work of supporting all of our body movements.
“Humans are not made to sit,” Dr. Shaan explains. So, if we’re sitting for hours and hours a day, hunching over our computers, what we’re doing is weakening our thigh muscles, putting more strain on the back itself.”
Even though our human body is made to move, we’re ignoring that completely (again).
We’ve become a generation of sitting ducks.
In the day, we work long and hard, hunched over our laptops and digital devices. By night, we’re so tired we just want to lie back on the couch and decompose our brains with Netflix.
On weekends, we go into full-blown couch potato mode.
If this is what your routine looks like, you are essentially sitting all day. You should be worried. In fact, it’s not just about your back. Studies have shown that sedentary behavior is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and increased risk of premature death in general.
So go out, take a walk after that heavy dinner. Find time in your schedule for some regular leg and glutes strengthening work out. Make a conscious attempt to stop sitting all the time.
Make time for your body and health now, or you may be forced to make time for it later in life.
Expert Bio: Dr Shaan Rai is a chiropractor focused on upper cervical care of the spine and specializes in treating migraines and vertigo. He completed 5 years of Chiropractic Masters at AECC, UK and has practised in London and Singapore. He is also an active member of the General Chiropractic Council U.K. and the Alliance of Chiropractic (Singapore).
References HealthXchange.sg x SingHealth. Work-Related Musuloskeletal Disorders in Singapore: Symptoms and Stats. Retrieved from https://www.healthxchange.sg/wellness/health-work/work-related-musculoskeletal-disorders-singapore-symptoms-stats  Singhealth (2018). Chronic Back Pain. https://www.singhealth.com.sg/patient-care/patient-education/chronic-back-pain  Casiano V. E, Dydyk A. M, Varacallo M. (2020) Back Pain. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538173/