We are doing a multi-part series on orthopedic problems for gamers, focusing on different regions of the body. This is Part II, looking at some postural fixes to take care of your lower back.
For gamers and athletes alike, whatever your passion or your profession, it’s nearly a sure bet you are on your electronic devices almost more than you’re not. We are doing a multi-part series on orthopedic problems for gamers, focusing on different regions of the body.
Last week we talked about problems like carpal tunnel and gamer’s thumb that are triggered by the constant, repeated actions involved with gaming and computer use. This week we’re moving away from the fine motor muscles controlling your hands and shifting to one of the body’s largest muscle groups: our backs.
We will be taking a quick look at how our lower backs are affected by gaming habits, how our backs are connected with our hips, and will also offer some tips you can take with you to your next gaming session.
Sitting is a static posture
Static means not moving. That means that it causes increasing stress in your back, shoulders, arms, and legs. It particularly adds large amounts of pressure to the back muscles and spinal discs. Whether we are gaming, studying, working, or binge watching Stranger Things 2, the majority of us find ourselves spending hours and hours sitting throughout the day.
Hours pile on, and many of us have a tendency to start slouching over or sliding down in our chairs, overstretching the spinal ligaments and straining the surrounding structures in the spine. Over time, sitting with deteriorating posture can damage our spines and cause different kinds of chronic pain.
Progressively Tilting Yourself
So, what’s going on when we game for long hours, and why does it cause our backs to hurt? It’s pretty simple to imagine. You’re at your desk for an hour, everything’s fine. The next hour it's all still fine, but you’re sinking a little deeper into your chair. By hour three, you’ve slouched over your desk and are leaning on your forearms or have slid down a little bit into the chair, your feet splayed in front of you. Does this sound familiar? These slouching postures can overstretch your spinal ligaments and strain your spinal discs and surrounding spinal structures - strains that will, over time, incur worsening back pain and contribute to spinal deterioration.
The trickle effect of bad posture is pretty wild. Your lower back is closely connected to your hips and glutes and knees, not just geographically, but by nerve referral as well, which is a fun way to reference the uncomfortable effect that you're slowly pinching spinal discs will have on the rest of your body.
Three Muscles of Note
To help set the stage, there are three types of back muscles that help the spine function: extensors, flexors, and obliques. Extensors attach at the back of the spine - they influence your ability to stand and lift objects, include the large paired muscles in the lower back (your erector spinae) and your butt cheeks...I mean gluteal muscles. Flexor muscles attach at the front of the spine and enable, uh, flexing, and influence your ability to bend forward, lift, and the flexibility of your lower back. The oblique muscles hang out to the sides of your spine and help you rotate the spine and maintain proper posture.
As you’re sitting at your desk, those extensors can become overactive - your gluteal muscles tighten up and put excess strain on your lower back. You start slouching, impinging your nerves as your spine folds even just the little bit. You lean forward and put pressure on the ligaments around your pelvis. It isn’t the same tough or acute strain to our butts and back as we might imagine squatting a bunch of weight might be, but as you sit and sit and sit that more gentle strain starts to add up, almost invisibly, until weeks or months or years later you realize “Ouch ouch oof owie ow, my back.”
Even though the western culture of sitting is slowly destroying us all, it isn’t all bleak skies falling. There’s a really simple way to prevent, combat, and even remedy lower back and hip pains caused by sitting and gaming for extended periods of time: active posture and stretching.
The best way to get better at anything is to engage actively. Pay attention to what you are doing so you can learn what to do better. This is true for sports, this is true for personal and professional development, and this is especially true for gaming. Think critically and engage. This extends to sitting. Yes! The best way to alleviate your back pain is to actively relax. We’ll let that simmer for a minute.
Physiotherapist Sally Ann (https://managebackpain.com/about) encourages us all to maintain what she calls “active posture” when we’re sitting. This means being aware of what correct sitting posture is and setting reminders to prevent ourselves from postural negligence.
Here’s a handy dandy checklist
- Feet and knees hip distance apart.
- Knees slightly lower than your hips, to prevent pinching and encourage blood flow.
- Lift your tailbone towards the ceiling, don’t let it slump back into the chair. Don’t duck butt, just don’t curl it under.
- Hold your shoulder blades down a little.
- Keep the crown of your head lifted to not let your chin poke out like a turtle. Dr. Ann imagines a helium balloon coming from the top of your head to lift you towards the ceiling.
If that sounds like a lot to keep in mind, it’s because it is. Good posture requires a decent amount of effort to maintain before it becomes habit, and let’s be real, games get intense and the degree of concentration required might cause you to lapse. That’s fine. Losing correct posture intermittently is better than chronic bad posture - the important thing is to not lose it for too long. Set an alarm to remind yourself every so often (maybe tie it in with something absolutely bonkers like drinking water)! We’re looking for long term maintenance of a life long skill here, not perfection.
What can help good posture?
Let’s talk some ergonomics.
Let’s move your mouse a little closer to your keyboard. Try, like, right next to it. The goal is to prevent overreaching, so your back and shoulders don’t twist to accommodate.
Breathe from your belly. This encourages you to engage your core muscles for support a little more. It’s also suuuuper relaxing.
Be picky about your chair. Make sure you have enough lumbar support for your lower back. If your chair sucks, grab a pillow or something until you can budget in a new one. Make sure there’s enough padding to relieve as much pressure as possible.
Make sure your armrests are high enough to just slightly lift your arm at the shoulder. This will prevent you from slouching your back to let your elbows reach the rests.
Try to resist crossing your legs. It’s very tempting because curling up can be so comfortable, but it makes it extremely difficult to keep your spine straight and shoulders squared. It also interrupts your blood flow and can contribute to that gluteal strain we were talking about.
Static means not moving
An easy way to help alleviate static stress is to make it less static. This means getting up every once and awhile! No matter how comfortable you are in your dope af chair, it’s important to get up, stand, and stretch a little for at least a minute or two every thirty minutes. This will help your blood flow, increasing your focus, making you more productive and engaged with your work or gaming session. Maybe set (another, we know) timer to remind yourself, or just get up for a little stretch after every level, quest, or match.