Most hacks spend a good chunk of their working life hunched over the computer pounding away at the keyboard trying to beat those ever-pressing deadlines.

For them, as for a good proportion of the working world, back pain caused by poor working conditions can be a real problem.

Here Nicola Tann - formerly a body-conditioning instructor and professional dancer and now a freelance journalist - sets out some simple but effective tips on how stay pain-free at the desk.

Set up

Having a comfortable place to work makes a huge difference. If you are squashed into the corner of a bedroom, your desk is cluttered, or your lighting is insufficient, you will respond physically - by hunching up or leaning forward to peer at your screen.

Make sure:

•    Your chair is comfortable and at a height where you can rest both feet flat on the floor.
•    Your keyboard is far enough forward on your work surface so that you can rest your forearms, from elbow to wrist, on the desk. This relaxes the shoulders, helping to prevent tension and possible nerve irritation.
•    Your chair, desk and monitor are all at the correct height to work comfortably and you have adequate light.
•    You use a separate keyboard if you work on a laptop.

Sit up

Many of us, when we imagine we are sitting up straight, can in fact over-compensate for our normal postural problems. If, for example, we usually have rounded shoulders, when told to sit up straight we may pull them too far back. In many cases this will throw the lower spine out of alignment too. Here are a few tips to help you to find a straight spine. (If you start to tense up during the following steps, take a few moments to breathe into the tense area and relax - the spine should feel able to move, not set in concrete.)

•    Sitting with both feet flat on the floor, feel the two 'sitting bones' in the buttocks taking equal weight.
•    Now start to feel the back of your skull becoming buoyant and gently pulling up away from your 'sitting bones'. (The top of the head is actually close to the crown, far further back than you might imagine, so the chin will drop down slightly as the back of the neck lengthens.)
•    As the two ends of the spine lengthen away from each other, gently pull the belly button in toward the spine for support, keeping the ribs relaxed. (If you find this hard to feel, use an out-breath to pull in.)
•    Finally, let your shoulders slide down away from your ears. To help broaden the shoulders imagine someone gently pulling them away from each other. Tip: Shoulders should feel broad across the front and the back at the same time.

Counter attack

The simplest rule to follow is: 'do the opposite movement to the one that is causing the problem'. If your screen is to your right, move it to the left. Swap your mouse to the other hand - you will get used to it much quicker than you think. This can be applied beyond just working practice - sleep on your other side, carry your bag on the other shoulder, hold your phone in the other hand. Here are some gentle stretches on this premise that can be done either at or by your desk. Repeat each a few times. Sit up straight and:

•    Circle the shoulders up, back, down then forward. There are three shoulder circles - one with the arms hanging down, one circling the elbows with each hand on its own shoulder, and the third circling the whole extended arm - that work every muscle in and around the shoulder joint.
•    Sitting with your hands in your lap, pull your shoulders up to your ears and hold for a few seconds before letting them relax down.
•    Gently move your head, making sure you return to upright between each stretch. Drop your ear toward your shoulder on each side. Look left and right, and up and down - when looking up be careful not to 'crunch' into the vertebrae, but to extend, keeping some length in the back of the neck.

Move it

Walking is, after lying horizontal, the activity that puts the least pressure on the spine, (with standing coming third and sitting the worst of the four), but any gentle movement is good if it's raining or your flat/office is too small for a good walk.

Try every hour or 90 minutes to get up from your desk and move around - even if it's only for a few minutes. Here are some suggestions:

•    Go round the block/ to the park/ for a paper if it's a nice day. As you walk let your shoulders drop away from your ears and your arms swing naturally by your side - this will relax the shoulders, helping prevent possible nerve irritation, and naturally stimulate lymph drainage - a process that can become sluggish if inactive for long periods.
•    If you work in an office, go to talk to a colleague rather than emailing them or picking up the phone - and try to leave the office for some fresh air daily.
•    If you work at home there is a lot you can do. Wander round the garden, or put on your favourite song and dance and sing/shout-along. It may sound silly, but singing engages the diaphragm and this in turn encourages deeper breathing, naturally dispelling tension.


Neck and shoulders - lie on the floor with your arms out to the side, palms facing up, feet propped on the floor, hip width apart with knees pointing up to the ceiling. Breathe naturally into your belly, feeling your whole body relax into the floor.

As you breathe allow the shoulders to relax, feeling the front of the armpit opening up. Then feel the weight of the head sinking down into the floor. Gently roll the head from side to side over the back of the skull, (keeping your chin slightly tucked down), as if your head were full of sand, and you were pouring it from each ear. Continue to breathe steadily and deeply.

Lower back - kneel, sitting back on your feet, with the knees slightly apart. Lean forward to rest over your thighs and rest your arms along the floor either out in front of you or back by your legs - whichever is more comfortable. Let your head relax forward and rest here for as long as you need, breathing deeply and, again, allowing the whole body to relax toward the floor. Tip - let the 'crease' in the front of the hip deepen and get softer as you relax.


Physiotherapy, osteopathy, chiropractics, massage and acupuncture can all provide relief, and should be viewed as a business expense. When you find the right treatment and practitioner, you will wonder how you ever did without them. Getting timely treatment can not only relieve pain, but also prevent future problems.

Try getting a recommendation for a practitioner from someone you know or, if this fails, check how long a therapist has been practicing and if they have any experience in dealing with your particular problem. Most practitioners will be happy to have a chat before you book in with them, even if it is only over the phone, and if they're not willing then they may not be worth seeing.


If you feel any pain or discomfort during any of the above exercises, stop immediately. Going to a pilates or body conditioning class will give you the benefit of advice from the instructor, who is trained to correct you on observation. Always arrive a little early to let the instructor know about any problems or pain you may have and they will be able to tailor their instructions to your needs.

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