Does sitting wreak havoc on your low back? Are you one of those people that sits all day for work and every time you go to stand up, you have a lot of pain in your low back? Or maybe you complain about your low back feeling stiff all day. And it’s worse after work. if, so this video is for you. 

My name is Dr. Ian Puntney from Wellington Family Chiropractic. Today I would like to discuss some of the potential causes of low back pain that is most prominent with sitting. 

How to Keep Sitting From Destroying Your Discs!

In 2010 there was a published study in the Journal of Manipulative & Physiological Therapeutics that evaluated people before and after a 4-hour period of sitting. The participants of this study received an MRI four times over the course of two days.

On the first day, the group of individuals represented the sedentary population. They received a baseline MRI in the morning, and then they were instructed to sit for four consecutive hours. When the 4-hour window of sitting was up, they received a second MRI to assess any changes that may have occurred to their low back after the window of sitting.

On the second day, the same group of individuals took the same baseline MRI in the morning, but this time they instructed the participants to sit (similar to the first day), but this time they required each participant to get up and stretch every 15 minutes. 

The stretching routine for the participants on day two consisted of the following:

  • Five seconds of stretching forward
  • Five seconds of stretching while leaning backward
  • Five seconds of stretching while bending to each side
  • Five seconds of stretching while rotating to each side

After the four-hour window of the combination of sitting & stretching, the group was again administered a follow-up MRI to see how the frequent breaks in sitting affected the lumbar spine compared to the four hours of consecutive sitting. 

What did they learn from this study? As you might guess, there were negative changes seen in the participants after the first day which involved four hours of prolonged sitting. To be precise, there were significant changes in disc height at both L4 and L5 after.

Degenerative Disc Disease - Beverly Hills Los Angeles, CA

In other words, the disc itself had gotten thinner after just four consecutive hours of sitting. I can’t tell you how often we hear the members of our Wellington community present with symptoms of a “thinning disc” or a “degenerative disc”. Well, this study might be very important for you. If there are noticeable changes in the height of the disc after just four hours of consecutive sitting, imagine what 8-straight hours of sitting will do? 

The follow-up question to this study is “Well do the discs stay that thin forever? Or do they rebound back to their normal height?” In my opinion, the disc probably doesn’t stay permanently thin after just 4 hours of sitting. But when you start compounding 4-8 hours of sitting, 5-6 times per week, you are not trending in the right direction to maintain the adequate disc-height that is necessary for the joint to function properly and ward off injury. 

So how does a loss of disc height affect your low back? Here are a few common complaints that we see from our patients who suffer from this condition:

  • Low Back Pain
  • Joint Injury (specifically the facet joints)
  • Low back stiffness
  • Trouble rising from a seated position
  • “Sciatica”-like symptoms
  • Numbness and tingling in one or both legs


So what did they find on day two? So remember, on the first day they didn’t move at all from a seated position. But on the second day, they were forced to get up and stretch every 15-minutes. What do you think they found with the group of people who were forced to get up and stretch every 15-minutes? There was no significant change in disc height! So just by getting up for 20 seconds, every 15 minutes, those people didn’t have a change in the height of their disc. This meant that they had a lesser chance of developing the above-related low back symptoms!

Research articles are insightful and eye-opening in many cases, but what can we take away from this and apply it to our lives? Well, if your job requires a lot of sitting it is likely that you are sitting for longer than four hours at a time. This means that your spine is acting more like the first cohort of patients. If you are not getting up and moving around every so often, you are increasing the likelihood of developing compression in the disc joints of the low back. Compressing your discs all day long could potentially lead to more low back pain and chronic issues in the future. 

How does somebody who works a “desk-jockey” type job avoid the seemingly inevitable bout of low back pain? Simply follow the lead of the second cohort! Set a timer so that every 15 minutes you get up and stretch your spine. 

All it takes is 20 seconds every 15 minutes, for a total of one minute and twenty seconds over the course of an hour! Following this lead will drastically decrease the chances of disc compression over the course of a workday. Just general movement (listed above) will help preserve the height of the disc throughout your work day!

Billy GG, Lemieux SK, Chow MX. Changes in lumbar disk morphology associated with prolonged sitting assessed by magnetic resonance imaging. PM R. 2014 Sep;6(9):790-5. doi: 10.1016/j.pmrj.2014.02.014. Epub 2014 Mar 2. PMID: 24594305; PMCID: PMC4152382.