Reversing Pandemic-Related Increases in Back Pain

Reversing Pandemic-Related Increases in Back Pain

By: Chris Graf

Reproduced by permission from: https://www.paintreatmentdirectory.com/posts/reversing-pandemic-related-increases-in-back-pain

Back pain increased significantly during the pandemic

Google searches for the words “back pain” reached an all-time high in January 2022. In a Harris Poll in September 2021, 56% of respondents said they had chronic pain, up from about 30% before the pandemic. There are probably multiple reasons for the uptick in pain in general and back pain in particular related to COVID, including added stress and ongoing symptoms of long COVID. Poor posture while working at home is another likely contributor.

Back pain and Ergonomics

According to Dr. Erik Peper, co-author of Tech Stress: How Technology is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics, It is likely that poor ergonomics in the home office are partially to blame for the apparent rise in back pain. “With COVID, ergonomics have become a disaster—especially with people who use laptops.” Peper, an internationally known expert in biofeedback and Professor of Holistic Health Studies at San Francisco State University, said that it is “almost impossible” to sit correctly when using a laptop. “In order for the hands to be at the correct level for the keyboard, the head must be tilted down. The more the head tilts forward, the most stress that is placed on the cervical spine,” he said, noting that the arms will no longer be in the proper position if the laptop is placed on a stand to raise it to eye level.

For laptop users, Peper recommends using either an external monitor or external keyboard. When using an external keyboard, a laptop stand can be used to elevate the screen to the proper eye level. University of California at Berkeley recommends other tips for ergonomic laptop positioning. 

When using both laptops and desktops, attention should be focused on proper sitting posture. Ergonomic chairs are only part of the equation when it comes to achieving proper posture.

 “A good chair only gives you the opportunity to sit correctly,” Peper said. The goal is to achieve anterior pelvic tilt by having the seat pan slightly lower in the front that in the back. He recommends using a seat insert or cushion to achieve proper positioning (see figure 1).

Figure 1.  A small pillow or rolled up towel can be placed behind the back at kidney level in order to keep the spine slightly arched (see figure 2).

Figure 2. Sitting Disease: Cause of Back Pain and Much More

According to Peper, people who spend extended periods of time at their computers are at risk  of developing   sitting disease—a  condition of increased sedentary behavior associated with adverse health effects. A  study   that appeared in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that prolonged sitting was associated with an increased risk of 34 chronic diseases and conditions including chronic back and musculoskeletal pain. According to the study, “Being seated alters the activation patterns of multiple weight-bearing muscles and, therefore, excessive desk use is associated with adverse back curvature, back pain and upper extremity problems such as carpel tunnel syndrome.”

To Avoid Back Pain, Don’t Slouch!

Sitting for prolonged periods of time can cause back, neck, arm, and leg pain, but slouching is even worse and can damage spinal structures. “Most people slouch at computer, and when you slouch, our spine becomes more like the letter C, our abdomen is compressed, the diaphragm goes up which causes us to shallow breathe in our upper chest,” Peper said. “That impacts our back and digestion and many other things.”

According to Peper, slouching can also impact our mood. “Slouching is the posture associated with depression and low energy. That posture collapse may evoke negative and hopeless emotions. If I sit up and look up, I have less of that. I can have more positive and uplifting thinking.”

 Peper recommends a simple device to help people improve their posture. Called an Upright Go, it attaches to the neck and provides vibrational feedback when slouching occurs. “Every time it starts buzzing, it’s a reminder to stop slouching and to get up, wiggle, and move,” he said. “We have published some studies on it, but I have no investment in the company.”

Peper’s 4 Basic Tips for Avoiding Back Pain and Other Sitting Diseases:

#1 Get Up and Move

“Rule one is to take many breaks—wiggle and move,” he said. “People are unaware that they slightly raise their shoulders and their arm goes slightly forward—in their mousing especially. By the end of the day, they feel stiffness in their shoulders or back. So, you need to take many wiggly breaks. Get up from your chair every 15 minutes.”

Use Stretch Break or one of the other apps that remind people to get up out of their chairs and stretch. 

Walk around while on the phone and wear a headset to improve posture while on the phone. 

For back pain, skip in place or lift the right arm at the same time as the left knee followed by the left arm and right knee–exercises that cause a diagonal stretch along the back.

#2 Just Breathe

  • “Learn to practice lower breathing,” Peper said. “When you sit, you are forced to breath higher in your chest. You want to practice slow diaphragmatic breathing. Breathe deeply and slowly to restore a natural rhythm. Take three deep breaths, inhaling for five seconds, then exhale very slowly for six seconds.” For more instructions on slower diaphragmatic breathing visit Peper’s blog on the subject. 

#3 Take Visual Breaks:

  • Our blinking rate significantly decreases while looking at a screen, which contributes to eye strain. To relax the eyes, look at the far distance. “Looking out into the distance disrupts constant near-focus muscle tension in the eyes,” he said. By looking into the distance, near-focus muscle tension in the eyes is disrupted.
      
  • If you have children, make sure they are taking frequent visual breaks from their screens. According to Peper, there has been a 20 percent increase in myopia (nearsightedness) in young children as a result of COVID-related distance learning. “The eyes are being formed and shaped during childhood, and if you only focus on the screen, that changes the muscle structure of our eyes over time leading to more myopia.”

#4 Pay Attention to Ergonomics

  • “If you are working on a desktop, the top of screen should be at eyebrow level,” Peper said. “Your feet should be on the ground, and the angle of the knees should be about 110 degrees. You should feel support in mid back and low back and be able to sit, lean back, and be comfortable.”
      
  • Peper recommends adjustable sit/stand desks and regularly alternating between sitting and standing.  
     

For more specific guidance on ergonomics for prolonged sitting, UCLA School of Medicine offers detailed guidelines. And don’t forget to check out Dr. Peper’s book  on ergonomics as well as his blog, The Peper Perspective, where you can use the search feature to help you find exactly what you are looking for. 

But in the meantime, Dr. Peper said, “It’s time for you to get up and wiggle!”

Find a Provider Who Can Help with Back Pain

Christine Graf is a freelance writer who lives in Ballston Lake, New York. She is a regular contributor to several publications and has written extensively about health, mental health, and entrepreneurship.    


Hope for insomnia, depression, anxiety, ADHD, exhaustion, and nasal congestion -Breathe light, slow and deep

Anxiety, depression, insomnia, exhaustion, ADHD, allergies, poor performance have all increased (Barendse et al., 2021; London & Landes, 2021; Peper et al, 2022a; Peper et al, 2022b; Vasileiadou et al, 2021). One of the unrecognized contributing factor is dysfunctional mouth breathing (McKeown, 2022). Improve health by learning to breathe in and out through the nose during the day and night. Listen to the inspiring presentation by Patrick McKeown, author of the superb book, The breathing cure-Develop  new habits for a healthier, happier & long life (McKeown, 2022). In this presentation, he describes the science behind these disorders, the rationale for breathing light, slow and deep and offers simple breathing exercises to reduce symptoms and improve performance.

References

Barendse, M., Flannery, J., Cavanagh, C., Aristizabal, M., Becker, S. P., Berger, E., … & Pfeifer, J. (2021). Longitudinal change in adolescent depression and anxiety symptoms from before to during the COVID-19 pandemic: A collaborative of 12 samples from 3 countries. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/hn7us

London, A.S. & Landes, S.D. (2021). Cohort Change in the Prevalence of ADHD Among U.S. Adults: Evidence of a Gender-Specific Historical Period Effect.  Journal of attention disorders, 25(6), 771-782. https://doi.org/10.1177/1087054719855689

McKeown, P. (2022). The breathing cure-Develop  new habits for a healthier, happier & long life.  West Palm Beach, FL: Humanix Books.

Peper, E. (2022). Reduce anxiety. the peperperspective. https://peperperspective.com/2022/03/23/reduce-anxiety/

Peper, E., Harvey, R., Cuellar, Y., & Membrila, C. (2022b). Reduce  anxiety. NeuroRegulation, 9(2), 91–97. https://doi.org/10.15540/nr.9.2.91  

Vasileiadou, S., Ekerljung, L., Bjerg, A., & Goksor, E. (2021). Asthma increased in young adults from 2008–2016 despite stable allergic rhinitis and reduced smoking. PLoS ONE, 16(6): e0253322. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0253322    


Hope for abdominal discomfort

Adapted from: Peper, E. & Harvey, R. (2022). Nausea and GI discomfort: A biofeedback assessment model to create a rational for training. Biofeedback, 50(1), 24–32.  https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-50.1.05

Abdominal discomfort and pain such as functional abdominal pain, acid reflux or irritable bowel affects many people. Teaching slower biofeedback-assisted HRV breathing with biofeedback is a useful strategy by which the person may be able to reduce symptoms. This essay provides detailed instruction for a first session assessment for clients who have abdominal discomfort (functional abdominal pain). Descriptions include how the physiological recording can be used to understand a possible etiology of the illness, to create a biological/evolutionary based explanation that is readily understood by the client, and finally to offer self-regulation suggestions to improve health.

Background of abdominal discomfort (irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux, functional abdominal pain, recurrent abdominal pain)

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects 7% to 21% of the general population in Western cultures with a global prevalence estimated at around 11% (Fairbrass, Costantino, Gracie, & Ford, 2020). The chronic symptoms (i.e., lasting more than 30 days) usually include abdominal cramping, discomfort or pain, bloating, loose or frequent stools and constipation, which can significantly reduce the quality of life (Chey et al., 2015). A precursor of IBS in children is called recurrent abdominal pain (RAP), which affects 0.3% to 19% of school children (Chitkara et al., 2005). Both IBS and RAP appear to be functional illnesses, as no organic causes have been identified to explain the symptoms. IBS and RAP are contrasted to various types of diseases such as Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease or ulcerative colitis.

Multiple factors may contribute to IBS, such as genetics, food allergies, previous treatment with antibiotics, infections, psychological status and stress. More recently, dietary factors contributing to changes in the intestinal and colonic microbiome resulting in small intestine bacterial overgrowth have been suggested as another risk factor (Dupont, 2014). Generally, standard medical treatments (reassurance, dietary manipulation and of pharmacological therapy) are often ineffective in reducing IBS symptoms (Chey et al., 2015). On the other hand, complementary and alternative approaches such as biofeedback-assisted relaxation techniques (Davidoff & Whitehead, 1996; Goldenberg et al., 2019; Stern et al. 2014), autogenic training (Luthe & Schultz, 1969) and cognitive therapy are more effective than traditional medical treatment (Vlieger et al., 2008).

Biofeedback-assisted relaxation training typically moderates IBS or RAP symptoms by restoring balance in the nervous system (sympathetic/parasympathetic autonomic balance), such as through heart rate variability (HRV) breathing training. For example, Sowder et al. (2010) as well as Sun et al. (2016) demonstrated that functional abdominal pain can be reduced with HRV feedback training. In most cases, increased vagal tone was achieved by breathing at about six breaths per minute. While Taneja et al. (2004) reported that yogic breathing decreased diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome symptoms  significantly more than conventional  treatment in a randomized control study.Sympathetic/parasympathetic balance can be enhanced by increasing HRV, which occurs when a person breathes at their resonant frequency, which is usually 5–7 breaths per minute. For most people, the HRV training means breathing at much slower rate. A benefit of slow abdominal breathing appears to be a self-control strategy that can reduce symptoms of IBS, RAP and similar functional abdominal pain symptoms.

Mastery of effortless diaphragmatic breathing can be affected by injury, surgery or similar insults to the abdominal area (Peper et al., 2015). In addition, dysregulation of diaphragm, which is enervated by the phrenic nerve and the vagus nerve, along with dysregulation of other abdominal muscles appears to be associated with irritable bowel syndrome (Bordoni & Morabito, 2018). It is likely that slower biofeedback-assisted HRV breathing training restores abdominal muscles and diaphragmatic movement, theoretically by tonic and phasic regulation of the phrenic and vagal nerve activity (cf. Marchenko et al., 2015; Streeter et al., 2012). The theory, simply stated, is that HRV breathing training at an individual’s resonant frequency produces increases in regulatory neurotransmitters, particularly gamma amino butyric acid (GABA). Many of our students who complain of abdominal discomfort report reductions of symptoms following HRV breathing training.

Consistently for more than 40 years, we have taught undergraduate students a semester-long integrated stress management program that includes modified progressive relaxation, slow diaphragmatic breathing and changing internal language as outlined in the book, Make Health Happen, by Peper, Gibney & Holt (2002). At the end of each semester, numerous students report that their anxiety, gastrointestinal distress and other symptoms related to self-described IBS or RAP have decreased or disappeared (Peper et al., 2014; Peper, Miceli, & Harvey, 2016; Peper, Mason, Huey, 2017; Peper et al., 2020). Abdominal discomfort is prevalent experience of distress by college students. In our recent survey of 99 undergraduate students, 41% self-reported abdominal discomfort (25% irritable bowel or acid reflux), 86% self-reported anxiety, 70% neck and shoulder tension and 48% headaches. After practicing slower breathing (i.e., typically directing them to breath abdominally at a rate of about six breaths a minute) and focus on slower exhalation and allowing the air to flow in without effort as the abdominal wall expands, as a homework assignment for a week, many reported that their symptoms significantly decreased (Peper, Harvey, Cuellar, & Membrila, in press).

Case example illustrating how to use the physiological recording to guide the client discussion and provide motivation

A 16-year-old high school junior suffered from abdomen discomfort for years. The symptoms mainly consisted of frequent constipation, and when it occurred, great discomfort from nausea. After having been diagnosed and undergoing all the necessary tests by the gastroenterologist, there was no identifiable cause of the chief complaints. Biofeedback was suggested as an alternative to medications for symptom reduction. During the biofeedback assessment and training session, the client discussed what she would like to learn from the session. It was challenging for her to respond to those questions. Not being able to report what the client would like from a training session is also a very common experience when working with students. A useful strategy is to describe experiences of other students that the clients could relate to, and imply that their abdominal discomfort is somewhat commonplace in other students.

Discussed during the session was the link between being very sensitive and reactive to other people’s feeling and being concerned about what others think of her. The client nodded her head in agreement. When describing herself, she discussed being very perfectionistic using a scale from being lackadaisical/undemanding to being perfectionistic (i.e., self-oriented perfectionism, self-worth contingencies, concern over mistakes, doubts about actions, self-criticism, socially prescribed perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism, hypercriticism; see Smith, Saklofske, Stoeber, & Sherry, 2016).

Furthermore, the client sat slouched in the chair. Possibly her slouched posture implied a state of powerlessness instead of empowerment, a state of being ready to react and protect (Carney, Cuddy, & Yap, 2010; Cuddy, 2012; Peper, Lin, & Harvey, 2017).

Working hypotheses. The client was very sensitive and continuously reacted to external and internal signals with sympathetic arousal, while masking her reactions. These ongoing flight/flight responses would decrease intestinal peristalsis and abdominal blood flow, which would result in nausea, constipation and abdominal distress. Namely, the body reacts to the stimuli as signals of danger and blood flow is shunted away from the abdomen into the large muscles to run and fight. To paraphrase Stanford University professor Robert Sapolsky (2004): Why should the body digest food and repair itself, if it is going to be the predator’s lunch? It is only when we are safe that we can digest and regenerate.

The session began by exploring how pressure on the abdomen could potentially affect experiences of nausea and abdominal distress. After explaining how the diaphragm descends and how abdominal content in the stomach can be displaced (spread out) during inhalation, we systematically changed her posture by placing and adjusting a small pillow behind her middle back so that she could sit tall. The tall posture resulted in an open feeling of empowerment not felt during slouching. She observed that breathing was slightly easier and felt there was more space in her abdomen. As she began to feel more comfortable during the training session, we discussed the impact of posture on the body. We also discussed the relationship between thoughts of perfectionism and abdominal discomfort. The discussion also included an exploration of why some people tend to curl-up and slouch in a protective posture (e.g., head down to protect the neck region and big bones of the arms and legs positioned to protect the core organs) when feeling self-consciousness or perfectionistic about body image.

Biofeedback monitoring for assessment

Psychophysiology was recorded with multichannel physiological system (Procomp Infinity System running Biograph Infinity software version 6.7.1, Thought Technology Ltd). Respiration was monitored with strain-gauge sensors placed around the abdomen and thoracic regions (for a discussion on sensor placement see Peper et al., 2016 and Chu et al., 2019). Blood volume pulse was recorded with the sensor placed on the left thumb. The thumb was used because the participant had small and cold fingers (for a discussion about blood volume pulse, see Peper et al, 2007 and Peper, Shafer, & Lin, 2010). Skin conductance was recorded with the sensor wrapped around the left index and middle fingers with the electrodes on the finger pads (for a discussion about skin conductance and normal values, see Khazan, 2019, and Shafer et al, 2016).

After sensors were attached and the signals explained, the client sat comfortably while looking at the screen. Unexpectedly the clinician clapped his hands and made a loud noise. The client reacted with a momentary startle and smile. The physiological response, showed an increase in skin conductance, decrease in pulse amplitude, decrease in abdominal diameter, and increase in heart rate, is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Physiological response to a loud noise (clap) (1) increased skin conductance, (2) decrease in pulse amplitude, (3) decrease in decreased abdominal circumference, and (4) increased heart rate and decreased heart rate variability.

The client was aware that she reacted to the clap; however, she was totally unaware how much her body responded. The computer screen display of her physiological reaction made the invisible visible. It provided the opportunity to discuss how various body reactions related to heart rate, breathing, and skin conductance could contribute to experiences of abdominal discomfort.

She was unaware that skin conductance did not return to baseline levels for more than 20 minutes. An elevated skin conductance level may mean that the body’s reaction to the hand-clap noise triggered a defense reaction and maintained the increased sympathetic activity for more than 20 minutes. Having a sustained flight/fight reaction to external stimuli such as a hand-clap would most likely affect digestive and peristalsis processes, contributing to symptoms found in IBS and RAP. The observations made during biofeedback monitoring led to a discussion of how sympathetic activation affects the gastrointestinal track.

Blood volume pulse amplitude decreased, which indicated a decrease in blood flow through her hands, which would decrease hand temperature and again indicated a systemic sympathetic activation.

Abdominal circumference decreased, which indicated that she tightened her abdominal muscles as a protective response to the hand-clap. She was unaware of the abdominal muscles tightening; however, she stated that she was aware that her breathing had changed. The abdominal muscle, which pulled the abdomen in, took almost two minutes to relax. The sustained muscle constriction around the abdomen increased pressure around the core organs, which may contribute to ongoing abdominal discomfort. A fight-flight reaction includes body bracing (e.g. tightened muscles, head down to protect the neck, big bones of arms and legs curled to protect core organs), and she confirmed that she experienced neck and shoulder tensions.

The discussion of abdominal muscle tension led to another discussion of how holding your stomach in may relate to self-image. For example, tight clothing can contribute to constricted movement around the abdomen. Wearing corsets contributed to psychophysiological symptoms, mainly for women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during a time when women who wore very tight corsets were diagnosed with neurasthenia. Simply stated, neurasthenia was characterized as a condition of mental and/or physical fatigue with at least two of the following symptoms: dyspepsia, dizziness, muscular aches or pains, tension headaches, inability to relax, irritability and sleep disturbance.

“Dyspepsia” was the commonly reported symptom of neurasthenia, which included upset stomach, a gnawing or burning stomach pain, heartburn, bloating, and or burping, nausea, and vomiting. The constricted waist region that resulted from wearing a corset in the name of fashion compromises the functions of both digestion and breathing. When the person inhales, the abdomen cannot expand as the diaphragm is flattening and pushing downward. Thus, the person is forced to breathe more shallowly by lifting their ribs; this increases neck and shoulder tension as well as the risk of anxiety, heart palpitation, and fatigue (Cohen & White, 1947; Courtney, 2009).

It also can contribute to abdominal discomfort since the abdomen is being squeezed by the corset and forcing the abdominal organs upward. Even architects of the Victorian era recognized a need for a place to position a chair or chaise lounge, such as at the top of some stairs, because people wearing corsets could faint, pass out or otherwise experience breathlessness through the effort of climbing the stairs with restrictive clothing around their abdomen (Melissa, 2015). Many of these symptoms could be easily reduced by wearing looser clothing and learning slower diaphragmatic breathing. In modern times, a related phenomenon results when people wear items of clothing that are too tight around their waist or abdomen (e.g., tight jeans) in service to fashion trends often labeled as designer jean syndrome (MacHose & Peper, 1991; Stonehewer, 2009). Similarly, when people wear garments that are too tight around their chest or thoracic region (e.g., tight vests) in service to external protection (e.g., athletes, industrial workers, police or soldiers wearing heavy, restrictive gear), then restrictive ventilatory disorders can occur (Harty et al., 1999). Simply stated, when the muscles related to breathing are restricted from moving, respiration is affected.

The client’s heart rate increased and stayed high for more than 30 seconds. The first decrease in heart rate at about 20 seconds after the hand-clap was a long sigh of relief as breathing (i.e., oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange) started again. It took almost 90 seconds before breathing and heart rate returned to normal as reflected by measures of HRV. The computer screen showing increased heart rate was reviewed with the client to explain how her body reacted with a fight-flight response to the hand-clap, as well as how regulating breathing through biofeedback training could lower the heart rate and reduce the sympathetic activation and enhance the parasympathetic activation.

Body responds to cognitive stressful thoughts

After discussion about the psychophysiological response to the hand-clap (a physical external stressor) and how other external stressors (e.g., startling noise) or internal stressors (e.g., perfectionistic ruminations) could trigger a similar response of abdominal muscle tightening, the assessment was repeated by having her relax and then think about a mental stressor, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Physiological responses to thinking about a past stressor (1) increased skin conductance, (2) decreased pulse amplitude, (3) decreased abdominal circumference, and (4) increased heart rate and decreased HRV.

The physiological response pattern to thinking about a past stressor was similar to the bodily reaction to a loud noise. The skin conductance increased and blood volume pulse amplitude decreased immediately after hearing (e.g., anticipating) the task of evoking/thinking of a past stressor. Most likely, the initial response was triggered by performance anxiety, then 6 seconds later the heart rate increased and breathing changed as she began experiencing the somatic reaction evoked by the recall of a negative stressor. The recordings also showed that her pulse amplitude decreased. The decrease in pulse amplitude suggested that her hands would probably become colder, which was confirmed by her self-report that she often experienced cold hands and feet. She reported being aware of the feeling an emotional reaction, but mainly noticing the change of breathing in her chest, and she was unaware of the abdominal changes. The client was surprised by how her body reacted to emotional thoughts. The recording viewed on the computer screen demonstrated objectively that her thoughts (initial performance anxiety) had a physical effect on her body. Specifically, experiencing the emotions that were evoked by recalling the stressful memory had a direct effect on the body in the same way that a physical external threat leads to a fight-flight response.

Building a psychophysiological model

Using these recorded computer images reflecting physical reactions to the hand clap and emotional thoughts, the discussion focused on how abdominal discomfort could be the result of activating a normal biological survival response. Survival responses would occur hundreds of times throughout a day, especially when worrying. Each thought would evoke the response, and the awareness of body reaction would evoke another reaction. Similar to how awareness of blushing amplifies blushing.

The client shared that she was very sensitive and reactive especially when other people were upset. She reported feeling “cursed” by their sensitivity and reactivity. The linguistic metaphor that could be used to describe her reactions is “she could not stomach what was going on.”

The discussion about physiological reactions provided the client with a model how her disorder (IBS and RAP) could have developed and been maintained over the years. The model matched her subjective experience: when stressed, the discomfort often increased. The discussion shifted to reframing her internal labels. Instead of describing her sensitivity as a curse, the sensitivity was reframed and labeled a gift; namely, she could sense many people’s emotional reactions, to which they would react in a variety of ways. She just needed to learn how to manage this sensitivity. Once she learned to manage it, she would have many advantages in interpersonal relations at home and at work. She would be able to sense what other people are experiencing. By reframing her symptoms as a result of a survival physiological response pattern, it reduces self- blame and offers solutions about how to master and change reactions and thereby have more control in the world.

Training to demonstrate control is possible.

The discussion was followed by teaching her diaphragmatic breathing in sitting and lying down positions. As she had no history of abdominal injuries, similar to many of our students, she rapidly demonstrated slower diaphragmatic breathing as shown in Figures 3 and 4.

Figure 3. The client practiced a few slower diaphragmatic breaths in the sitting and reclining position, which increased heart rate variability, decreased skin conductance and increased blood volume pulse amplitude.

Figure 4. Practicing slower diaphragmatic breathing at about six breaths per minute in a reclining position increased HRV.

With tactile coaching, she demonstrated that she could breathe at about six breaths per minute with the heart rate increasing during inhalation and decreasing during exhalation. She reported feeling more relaxed and that the sensations of nausea had disappeared. Additionally, her hands felt warmer. This recording provided proof that there was hope and that she could do something about her body’s psychophysiological responses.

The discussion focused on how breathing affecting heart rate variability. Namely, if she allowed exhalation to occur without effort, her heart rate decreased (the vagal response of slowing the heart) and thereby increased the parasympathetic activation that would support digestion and gastrointestinal functioning. Often when people practice effortless diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal noises (borborygmus)– the gurgling, rumbling, or squeaking noise from the abdomen–occur and indicate that intestinal activity is being activated, and that food, liquids and digestive juice are moving through the intestines. It is usually a positive indicator that the person is relaxing and sympathetic activity has been reduced.

During the last part of session, we reviewed how posture affects physiology, emotions and cognitions, as well as how posture and breathing would be the first step in beginning to reduce symptoms and enhance health. To provide additional information using video and bibliotherapy/education, we suggested that she watches the embedded videos in the blogs listed at the end of the article.  

Recommendations for future sessions and home practice

The recommended strategies for future sessions would focus on teaching the client to master slow diaphragmatic breathing and practicing that for 10–20 minutes per day. The teaching techniques would incorporate imagery to imagine air flowing down their arms and legs as she exhaled. . More importantly, the focus would shift to generalize the skill during the day; namely, whenever she would become aware of feeling stressed or observed herself holding her breath or breathing in her chest, she would use that as the cue to shift to slower abdominal breathing. Had the client continued training, future sessions would focus on mastering slower diaphragmatic breathing. The training would include relaxing the lower abdominal muscles during inhalation, increasing control of HRV, practicing imagining stress and use image to trigger slower breathing, and cognitive reframing practices to interrupt worrying and promote self-acceptance. The final goal is to generalize these skills into daily life as illustrated in the successful cases described in the following blogs

Blogs on posture:

References

Bordoni, B. & Morabito, B. (2018). Symptomatology correlations between the diaphragm and irritable bowel syndrome. Cureus10(7), e3036. https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.3036

Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J., & Yap, A. J. (2010). Power posing: brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 10, 1363-1368. https://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797610383437

Chey, W. D., Kurlander, J., & Eswaran, S. (2015). Irritable bowel syndrome: a clinical review. Jama313(9), 949–958. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2015.0954

Chitkara, D. K., Rawat, D. J., & Talley, N. J. (2005). The epidemiology of childhood recurrent abdominal pain in Western countries: a systematic review. American journal of Gastroenterology100(8), 1868–1875. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1572-0241.2005.41893.x

Chu, M., Nguyen, T., Pandey, V., Zhou, Y., Pham, H. N., Bar-Yoseph, R., Radom-Aizik, S., Jain, R., Cooper, D. M., & Khine, M. (2019). Respiration rate and volume measurements using wearable strain sensors. NPJ digital medicine, 2(1), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41746-019-0083-3

Cohen, M. E. & White, P. D. (1947). Studies of breathing, pulmonary ventilation and subjective awareness of shortness of breath (dyspnea) in neurocirculatory asthenia, effort syndrome, anxiety neurosis. Journal of Clinical Investigation, 26(3), 520–529. https://doi.org/10.1172/JCI101836

Courtney, R. (2009). The functions of breathing and its dysfunctions and their relationship to breathing therapy. International Journal of Osteopathic Medicine, 12, 78–85. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijosm.2009.04.002

Cuddy, A. (2012). Your body language shapes who you are. Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) Talk, available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are

Davidoff, A. L., & Whitehead, W. E. (1996). Biofeedback, relaxation training, and cognitive behavior modification: Treatments for functional GI disorders, In Olden, K, W. (ed). Handbook of Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. CRC Press, 361–384.

Dupont, H. L. (2014). Review article: evidence for the role of gut microbiota in irritable bowel syndrome and its potential influence on therapeutic targets. Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics39(10), 1033–1042. https://doi.org/10.1111/apt.12728

Fairbrass, K. M., Costantino, S. J., Gracie, D. J., & Ford, A. C. (2020). Prevalence of irritable bowel syndrome-type symptoms in patients with inflammatory bowel disease in remission: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology, 5(12), 1053–162. https://doi.org/10.1016/s2468-1253(20)30300-9

Goldenberg, J. Z., Brignall, M., Hamilton, M., Beardsley, J., Batson, R. D., Hawrelak, J., Lichtenstein, B., & Johnston, B. C. (2019). Biofeedback for treatment of irritable bowel syndrome. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (11). https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD012530.pub2

Harty, H. R., Corfield, D. R., Schwartzstein, R. M., & Adams, L. (1999). External thoracic restriction, respiratory sensation, and ventilation during exercise in men. Journal of Applied Physiology, 86(4), 1142–1150. https://doi.org/10.1152/jappl.1999.86.4.1142

Khazan, I. (2019). A guide to normal values for biofeedback. Biofeedback, 47(1), 2–5. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-47.1.03

Luthe, W. & Schultz, J. H. (1969). Autogenic Therapy Volume II: Medical Applications. Grune & Stratton.

MacHose, M., & Peper, E. (1991). The effect of clothing on inhalation volume. Biofeedback and Self-Regulation, 16(3), 261–265. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01000020

Marchenko, V., Ghali, M. G., & Rogers, R. F. (2015). The role of spinal GABAergic circuits in the control of phrenic nerve motor output. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 308(11), R916–R926. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpregu.00244.2014

Melissa. (2015). Why women fainted so much in the 19th century. May 20, 2015. Downloaded October 2, 2021. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2015/05/women-fainted-much-19th-century/

Peper, E., Gibney, K. H., & Holt, C. F. (2002). Make Health Happen—Training Yourself to Create Wellness. Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.

Peper, E., Gilbert, C. D., Harvey, R. & Lin, I-M. (2015). Did you ask about abdominal surgery or injury? A learned disuse risk factor for breathing dysfunction. Biofeedback. 34(4), 173–179. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-43.4.06

Peper, E., Groshans, G. H., Johnston, J., Harvey, R., & Shaffer, F. (2016). Calibrating respiratory strain gauges: What the numbers mean for monitoring respiration. Biofeedback, 44(2), 101–105. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-44.2.06

Peper, E., Harvey, R., Cuellar, Y., & Membrila, C.(in press). Reduce anxiety. NeuroRegulation.

Peper, E., Harvey, R., Lin, I. M., Tylova, H., & Moss, D. (2007). Is there more to blood volume pulse than heart rate variability, respiratory sinus arrhythmia, and cardiorespiratory synchrony? Biofeedback, 35(2), 54–61. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259560204_Is_There_More_to_Blood_Volume_Pulse_Than_Heart_Rate_Variability_Respiratory_Sinus_Arrhythmia_and_Cardiorespiratory_Synchrony

Peper, E., Lin, I-M, & Harvey, R. (2017). Posture and mood: Implications and applications to therapy. Biofeedback, 35(2), 42–48. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-45.2.03

Peper, E., Lin, I-M, Harvey, R., Gilbert, M., Gubbala, P., Ratkovich, A., & Fletcher, F. (2014). Transforming chained behaviors: Case studies of overcoming smoking, eczema and hair pulling (trichotillomania). Biofeedback, 42(4), 154–160. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-42.4.06

Peper, E., Mason, L., Harvey, R., Wolski, L, & Torres, J. (2020). Can acid reflux be reduced by breathing? Townsend Letters-The Examiner of Alternative Medicine, 445/446, 44–47. https://www.townsendletter.com/article/445-6-acid-reflux-reduced-by-breathing/

Peper, E., Mason, L., Huey, C. (2017). Healing irritable bowel syndrome with diaphragmatic breathing. Biofeedback, 45(4), 83–87. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-45.4.04

Peper, E., Miceli, B., & Harvey, R. (2016). Educational model for self-healing: Eliminating a chronic migraine with electromyography, autogenic training, posture, and mindfulness. Biofeedback, 44(3), 130–137. https://www.aapb.org/files/publications/biofeedback/2016/biof-44-03-130-137.pdf

Peper, E., Shaffer, F., & Lin, I. M. (2010). Garbage in; Garbage out—Identify blood volume pulse (BVP) artifacts before analyzing and interpreting BVP, blood volume pulse amplitude, and heart rate/respiratory sinus arrhythmia data. Biofeedback, 38(1), 19–23. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-38.1.19

Sapolsky, R. (2004). Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Owl Books ISBN: 978-0805073690

Shaffer, F., Combatalade, D., Peper, E., & Meehan, Z. M. (2016). A guide to cleaner electrodermal activity measurements. Biofeedback, 44( 2), 90–100. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-44.2.01

Smith, M. M., Saklofske, D. H., Stoeber, J., & Sherry, S. B. (2016). The big three perfectionism scale: A new measure of perfectionism. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 34(7), 670–687. https://doi.org/10.1177/0734282916651539

Sowder, E., Gevirtz, R., Shapiro, W., & Ebert, C. (2010). Restoration of vagal tone: a possible mechanism for functional abdominal pain. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback35(3), 199–206. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10484-010-9128-8

Stern, M. J., Guiles, R. A., & Gevirtz, R. (2014). HRV biofeedback for pediatric irritable bowel syndrome and functional abdominal pain: A clinical replication series. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 39(3), 287–291. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10484-014-9261-x

Stonehewer, L. (2009). Dysfunctional breathing for women’s health physiotherapists. Journal of the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Women’s Health, 104, 38–40. https://pogp.csp.org.uk/system/files/stonehewer_hr.pdf

Streeter, C. C., Gerbarg, P. L., Saper, R. B., Ciraulo, D. A., & Brown, R. P. (2012). Effects of yoga on the autonomic nervous system, gamma-aminobutyric-acid, and allostasis in epilepsy, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Medical hypotheses, 78(5), 571–579. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2012.01.021

Sun, X., Shang, W., Wang, Z., Liu, X., Fang, X., & Ke, M. (2016). Short-term and long-term effect of diaphragm biofeedback training in gastroesophageal reflux disease: An open-label, pilot, randomized trial. Diseases of the Esophagus, 29(7), 829–836. https://doi.org/10.1111/dote.12390

Taneja. I., Deepak, K.K., Poojary, G., Acharya, I.N., Pandey, R.M., & Sharma, M.P. (2004). Yogic versus conventional treatment in diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome: a randomized control study. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback, 29(1), 19-33. https://doi.org/10.1023/b:apbi.0000017861.60439.95

Vlieger, A. M., Blink, M., Tromp, E., & Benninga, M. A. (2008). Use of complementary and alternative medicine by pediatric patients with functional and organic gastrointestinal diseases: results from a multicenter surveyPediatrics122(2), e446–e451. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2008-0266


Freedom of movement with the Alexander Technique

Erik Peper and Elyse Shafarman

After taking Alexander Technique lessons I felt lighter and stood taller and I have learned how to direct myself differently.  I am much more aware of my body, so that while I am working at the computer, I notice when I am slouching and contracting. Even better, I know what to do so that I have no pain at the end of the day. It’s as though I’ve learned to allow my body to move freely.

The Alexander Technique is one of the somatic techniques that optimize health and performance (Murphy, 1993). Many people report that after taking Alexander lessons, many organic and functional disorders disappear. Others report that their music or dance performances improve. The Alexander Technique has been shown to improve back pain, neck pain, knee pain walking gait, and balance (Alexander technique, 2022; Hamel, et al, 2016; MacPherson et al., 2015; Preece, et al., 2016). Benefits are not just  physical. Studying the technique decreases performance anxiety in musicians and reduces depression associated with Parkinson’s disease (Klein, et al, 2014; Stallibrass et al., 2002).

Background

The Alexander Technique was developed in the late 19th century by the Australian actor, Frederick Matthias Alexander (Alexander, 2001).  It is an educational method that teaches students to align, relax and free themselves from limiting tension habits (Alexander, 2001; Alexander technique, 2022).  F.M Alexander developed this technique to resolve his own problem of becoming hoarse and losing his voice when speaking on stage.

Initially he went to doctors for treatment but nothing worked except rest. After resting, his voice was great again; however, it quickly became hoarse when speaking.  He recognized that it must be how he was using himself while speaking that caused the hoarseness.  He understood that “use” was not just a physical pattern, but a mental and emotional way of being. “Use” included beliefs, expectations and feelings. After working on himself, he developed the educational process known as the Alexander Technique that helps people improve the way they move, breathe and react to the situations of life.

The benefits of this approach has been documented in a large randomized controlled trial of one-on-one Alexander Technique lessons which showed that it significantly reduced chronic low back pain and the benefits persisted a year after treatment (Little, et al, 2008).  Back pain as well as shoulder and neck pain often is often related to stress and how we misuse ourselves.  When experiencing discomfort, we quickly tend to blame our physical structure and assume that the back pain is due to identifiable structural pathology identified by X-ray or MRI assessments. However, similar structural pathologies are often present in people who do not experience pain and the MRI findings correlate poorly with the experience of discomfort (Deyo & Weinstein, 2001; Svanbergsson et al., 2017). More likely, the causes and solutions involve how we use ourselves (e.g., how we stand, move, or respond to stress). A functional approach may include teaching awareness of the triggers that precede neck and back tension, skills to prevent the tensing of those muscles not needed for task performance,  resolving psychosocial stress and improving the ergonomic factors that contribute to working in a stressed position (Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020). Conceptually, how we are use ourselves (thoughts, emotions, and body) affects and transforms our physical structure and then our physical structure constrains how we use ourselves.

Watch the video with Alexander Teacher, Elyse Shafarman, who describes the Alexander Technique and guides you through practices that you can use immediately to optimize your health while sitting and moving.

See also the following posts:

References

Alexander, F.M. (2001). The Use of the Self. London: Orion Publishing. https://www.amazon.com/Use-Self-F-M-Alexander/dp/0752843915

Alexander technique. (2022). National Health Service. Retrieved 19 April, 2022/.  https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alexander-technique/

Deyo, R.A. & Weinstein, J.N. (2001). Low back pain. N Engl J Med., 344(5),363-70. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJM200102013440508

Hamel, K.A., Ross, C., Schultz, B., O’Neill, M., & Anderson, D.I. (2016). Older adult Alexander Technique practitioners walk differently than healthy age-matched controls. J Body Mov Ther. 20(4), 751-760. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbmt.2016.04.009

Klein, S. D., Bayard, C., & Wolf, U. (2014). The Alexander Technique and musicians: a systematic review of controlled trials. BMC complementary and alternative medicine14, 414. https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6882-14-414

Little, P.  Lewith, W G., Webley, F.,  Evans, M., …(2008). Randomised controlled trial of Alexander technique lessons, exercise, and massage (ATEAM) for chronic and recurrent back pain. BMJ, 337:a884. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a884

MacPherson, H., Tilbrook, H., Richmond, S., Woodman, J., Ballard, K., Atkin, K., Bland, M., et al. (2015). Alexander Technique Lessons or Acupuncture Sessions for Persons With Chronic Neck Pain: A Randomized Trial. Ann Intern Med, 163(9), 653-62. https://doi.org/10.7326/M15-0667

Murphy, M. (1993). The Future of the Body. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Perigee.

Peper, E., Harvey, R. & Faass, N. (2020). TechStress: How Technology is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Preece, S.J., Jones, R.K., Brown, C.A. et al.  (2016). Reductions in co-contraction following neuromuscular re-education in people with knee osteoarthritis. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 17372.  https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-016-1209-2

Stallibrass, C., Sissons, P., & Chalmers. C. (2002). Randomized controlled trial of the Alexander technique for idiopathic Parkinson’s disease. Clin Rehabil, 16(7), 695-708. https://doi.org/10.1191/0269215502cr544oa

Svanbergsson, G., Ingvarsson, T., & Arnardóttir RH. (2017). [MRI for diagnosis of low back pain: Usability, association with symptoms and influence on treatment]. Laeknabladid, 103(1):17-22. Icelandic. https://doi.org/10.17992/lbl.2017.01.116

Tuomilehto, J., Lindström, J., Eriksson, J.G., Valle, T.T., Hämäläinen, H., Ilanne-Parikka, P., Keinänen-Kiukaanniemi, S., Laakso, M., Louheranta, A., Rastas, M., et al. (2001). Prevention of type 2 diabetes mellitus by changes in lifestyle among subjects with impaired glucose tolerance. N. Engl. J. Med., 344, 1343–1350. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJM200105033441801

Uusitupa, Mm, Khan, T.A., Viguiliouk, E., Kahleova, H., Rivellese, A.A., Hermansen, K., Pfeiffer, A., Thanopoulou, A., Salas-Salvadó, J., Schwab, U., & Sievenpiper. J.L. (2019). Prevention of Type 2 Diabetes by Lifestyle Changes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients, 11(11)2611. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11112611


A breath of fresh air: Breathing and posture to optimize health

Most people breathe 22,000 breaths per day. We tend to breathe more rapidly when stressed, anxious or in pain. While a slower diaphragmatic breathing supports recovery and regeneration. We usually become aware of our dysfunctional breathing when there are problems such as nasal congestion, allergies, asthma, emphysema, or breathlessness during exertion.  Optimal breathing is much more than the absence of symptoms and is influenced by posture. Dysfunctional posture and breathing are cofactors in illness. We often do not realize that posture and breathing affect our thoughts and emotions and that our thoughts and emotions affect our posture and breathing. Watch the video, A breath of fresh air: Breathing and posture to optimize health, that was recorded for the 2022 Virtual Ergonomics Summit.


When you have pain-Listen to this first!

Pain is so different for each person. It can range from mildly distracting to totally debilitating. It can be the result from a medical procedure (post- surgical pain), a traumatic injury, disease, trauma or unknown causes.  It is challenging to know what to do to reduce suffering and improve health and functioning.  Should I take narcotics, have surgery, see a pain psychologist, have acupuncture, receive physical therapy, use biofeedback, change my diet, or get a massage? Should I exercise or rest? Should I follow my doctor’s recommendations?

Before you do anything, first listen to this podcast by pain psychologist, Rachel Zoffness, PhD. In this podcast she will explain what pain is; how it works; and how thoughts, emotions, and sensations are always interconnected. You will also learn the fundamentals of treating chronic pain and helping patients living with it. As one of my close friends stated, “I only wished I could have listened to this before, it would have saved years of suffering.” The podcast is Ologies with Alie Ward and the episode is Dolorology. The link for the episode is:

https://www.alieward.com/ologies/dolorology

Rachel Zoffness, PhD, a pain psychologist, Visiting Professor at Stanford, and Assistant Clinical Professor at the UCSF School of Medicine. She serves on the Board of Directors of the U.S. Association for the Study of Pain, and the Society of Pediatric Pain Medicine. She is the author of The Pain Management Workbook and The Chronic Pain and Illness Workbook for Teens. She is a 2021 Mayday Fellow and consults on the development of integrative pain programs around the world.


Get Well & Stay Well: Technology’s effect on our mind and body with Wayne Jonas, MD and Erik Peper, PhD

Enjoy the conversations, Get Well & Stay Well, with Wayne Jonas, MD, Former Director NIH Office of Alternative Medicine, and Erik Peper, PhD of San Francisco State University (SFSU) recorded November 30, 2021. They discuss technology’s effect on our mind and body and holistic approaches to managing stress and pain from chronic illness. Have patience when you watch the video–it takes 5 seconds for the program to begin. Click on the link to watch: https://fb.watch/9Cbkw9GZw8/

For more information, see the following blogs:


The Power of Story: Reflections

Julie Lanoie, MA, RN, hospice and palliative care nurse and consultant*

This guest blog’s video by Julie Lanoie reflects on the use of stories while caring for her grandfather during the last years of his life. It is a thoughtful, deeply touching and powerful presentation that would benefit everyone who is concerned with death and dying. As Julie states, people reveal their values, their fears, their regrets, their proudest moments, their greatest loves, and so much more through their stories. 

As listeners and witnesses, we can help facilitate the use of story as a healing tool. Through the stories of one family, this presentation, originally designed for hospice volunteers for the Home Care, Hospice, and Palliative Care Alliance of New Hampshire, illustrates the power of story to support people living with dementia and those who love and care for them, the power of story to contextualize our experience of loss and promote healthy grieving, and the role of story in preserving intergenerational relationships. So…What’s your story?

*Contact information: julieannalano@gmail.com


Rest Rusts: Increase dynamic movement to improve health

In hunting and gathering cultures, alternating movement patterns was part of living and essential for health. This shift from dynamic movement to static or awkward positions is illustrated in Figure 1.  

Figure 1. The shift from dynamic movement to immobility and near vision as illustrated by the Hadzabe men in Tanzania returning from a hunt to our modern immobilized work and pleasure positions (Reproduced by permission from Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020).

Dynamic movement promotes blood and lymph circulation and reduces static pressures.  At present times our work and leisure activities increase  immobility and static positions as we predominantly have shifted to a sitting immobilized position. This significantly increases musculoskeletal discomfort, cardiovascular disease, diabetes etc. The importance of movement as a factor to enhance health is illustrated in the recent findings of 2110 middle aged participants who were followed up for ten years.  Those who took approximately 7000 steps per day or more experienced significantly lower mortality rates compared with participants taking fewer than 7000 steps per day (Paluch et al., 2021). Just having the head forward while looking at the cellphone significantly increases the forces on the muscles holding the head up as illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2. The head-forward position puts as much as sixty pounds of pressure on the neck muscles and spine (reproduced by permission from Dr. Kenneth Hansaraj, 2014).

For background and recommendations on what how to reduce static positions, look at our book, TechStress-How technology is hijacking our lives, strategies for coping and pragmatic ergonomics. and the superb article, Static postures are harmful – dynamic postures at work are key to musculoskeletal health, published by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA, Sept 16, 2021) and reproduced below.

Static postures are harmful – dynamic postures at work are key to musculoskeletal health

Our bodies are built for movement – it’s a central part of maintaining a healthy musculoskeletal system and the less we move, the more chance we have of developing health issues including musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and more. However, the negative effects of sedentary work can be mitigated by paying attention to the postures we adopt when we work.

Whether workers are standing or seated while working, maintaining a good ergonomic posture is essential when it comes to preventing MSDs. Poor or awkward postures put unnecessary strain on the musculoskeletal system and, over time, can cause the deterioration of muscle fibres and joints.

Poor or awkward postures include those which involve parts of the body not being in their natural position. More muscular effort is needed to maintain unnatural postures, which increases the energy used by the body and can cause fatigue, discomfort and pain. Unnatural postures also put strain on tendons, ligaments and nerves, which increases the risk of injury. For example, the risk of neck pain increases when the neck is rotated more than 45 degrees for more than 25% of the working day.

These postures, including slouching, rotation of the forearms, or prolonged periods of sitting or standing in the same spot, can cause pain in the lower back and upper limbs. The risk increases when combined with repetitive work, static muscle load, or the need to apply force or reach. And even natural or good postures maintained for any length of time become uncomfortable and eventually painful. Everyone has experienced stiffness after being in the same position for any length of time.

What do we mean by ‘good posture’?

For workers, especially those in sedentary jobs such as office work, factory work or driving, it is important to recognise and adopt good postures. A good posture should be comfortable and allow the joints to be naturally aligned. The segments of our body can be divided into three cross-sectional anatomical planes: the sagittal plane, which concerns bending forwards and backwards; the frontal plane, which concerns bending sideways; and finally the transverse plane, which refers to rotation or twisting of the body parts. A good posture is one that ensures that all three of these planes are set at neutral positions as much as possible, in that the worker is not leaning backwards, forwards or to any particular side, and their limbs and torso are not rotated or twisted. Adopting neutral postures will help to lessen the strain on the worker’s muscles, tendons and skeletal system, and reduces the risk of them causing or aggravating an MSD.

In practice, workers can consider the following checklist to ensure that they’re standing or sitting in a neutral position:

  • Keep the neck vertical and the back in an upright position.
  • Ensure the elbows are below the chest and avoid having to reach excessively.
  • Keep the shoulders relaxed and use back and arm rests where possible and ensure that they are adjusted to the size and shape of the worker.
  • Avoid rotating the forearms or excessively moving the wrists.
  • Ensure that any work tools can be held comfortably, and that clothing doesn’t restrain or prevent movement.
  • Allow room to comfortably move the legs and feet and avoid frequent kneeling or squatting.
  • Ensure that long periods of standing or sitting in the same posture can be broken up.

Employers can assist workers in adopting good postures by communicating checklists such as this one, and by promoting physical activity where possible, encouraging the fair rotation of tasks between employees to avoid them consistently making repetitive movements, and ensuring that workers have the capacity to take regular breaks.

Why our next posture is the best posture

However, maintaining a good posture at all times is not enough to reduce the risk of MSDs, and can even be harmful. Static postures, even if ergonomic, are still a risk factor if over-used. Our body requires movement and variety, which is why the best approach is to use a variety of ergonomic postures in rotation, breaking up long periods of static working with stretching, exercise, and movement. This is known as adopting dynamic positions’.

It is important not only for workers who spend much of their day seated, but also for workers who primarily stand – such as factory workers in assembly lines. In both cases, sitting and standing are not opposites. The opposite of both is movement. Changing postures between sitting and standing is not sufficient for any worker – the working environment must still offer ways of varying their postures and incorporating movement into their daily working routines. What’s more, if standing work cannot be avoided, workers do not need lots of space in order to adopt dynamic positions in a healthy way. Blood flow propulsion mechanisms can still work correctly even if the worker is only moving around in one square metre. However it is still the case that they should have a break after 30 minutes of standing.

Work should therefore not only facilitate good postures, but ensure that good, ergonomic postures are also dynamic. Switching between sitting, standing and moving while ensuring that the musculoskeletal frame is not under any unnecessary tension can help sedentary workers avoid the onset of MSDs and other health problems. For more information visit the priority area on sedentary work.

References

EU-OSHA. (September 16, 2021). Static postures are harmful – dynamic postures at work are key to musculoskeletal health. https://healthy-workplaces.eu/en/media-centre/news/static-postures-are-harmful-dynamic-postures-work-are-key-musculoskeletal-health?

Hansraj, K. K. (2014).  Assessment of Stresses in the Cervical Spine Caused by Posture and Position of the Head. Surgical Technology International, 25, 277–79. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25393825/

Paluch, A.E., Gabriel, K.P., Fulton, J.E., et al.(2021). Steps per Day and All-Cause Mortality in Middle-aged Adults in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study. JAMA Netw Open, 4(9):e2124516. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.24516

Peper, E., Harvey, R. & Faass, N. (2020). TechStress-How Technology is Hijacking our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics. Berkeley: North Atlantic books. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/232119/tech-stress-by-erik-peper-phd/