Desk-bound? Tips to save your spine

Health Xchange
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Spinal problems are increasingly common amongst patients in their 20s and 30s (Thinkstock photo).

Sitting at your computer for hours at a stretch may cause more than just a backache. It can accelerate the normal wear and tear of your spine and cause spinal problems such as cervical spondylosis and lumbar spondylosis at an early age.

Spondylosis is a degenerative disc condition, typically common among people aged 40 and above. However, patients are getting younger. Of the 130,000 outpatient visits at SGH last year, over one-third had sought treatment for spinal problems, many of them below the age of 40.

"I am seeing more people in their 20s and 30s with symptoms of cervical spondylosis and lumbar spondylosis such as neck pain and lower back pain. The pain is usually aggravated by prolonged sitting in the office, typically working on the computer," says associate professor Tan Seang Beng, head and senior consultant, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

In serious cases, these spinal problems can lead to numbness and weakness in the hands, arms and legs. But with diligent spinal care and early treatment, you can prevent spinal problems from worsening, adds Tan.

Related video: Need advice and tips for neck pain?

What are the symptoms & signs of spondylosis?

Spondylosis is a condition where the joints and cushions (intervertebral discs) that form the backbone wear out, generally due to ageing. It occurs mainly in the neck (cervical spondylosis) or lower back (lumbar spondylosis).

When the cushions and joints of the spine are worn out, the spine loses flexibility and becomes stiffer. Bending of the spine for long periods of time (which typically happens when sitting for prolonged periods, especially in a slouched position) puts increased pressure on these cushions and joints which tend to become stuck and stiff.

When getting up from the chair the spine suddenly has to straighten, and the sudden movement causes pain and occasionally injury. Bone spurs grow from the joints as a result of constant friction, wear and tear, and occasionally become large enough to cause pinching of nerves.

Related article: 10 ways to protect your joints

The main symptoms of cervical spondylosis or lumbar spondylosis include the following:

  • Stiff and painful neck
  • Lower back pain and tenderness
  • Stiffness and difficulty moving the back
  • Tingling sensations in one or both arms, hands, legs or feet
  • Numbness and weakness in one or both arms, hands, legs or feet
  • In severe cases of nerve pinching, difficulty in walking, unbalanced or unsteady gait with a tendency to fall especially when climbing stairs
  • Poor bladder control
  • Headaches, and occasionally giddiness

Tips to protect your spine

About 90 per cent of the population will suffer from back or neck pain when they reach adulthood, says Tan. When it comes to the back, prevention is best.

  • Take short frequent breaks away from the computer. Sit up straight on and off every 10-15 minutes, periodically stand up, walk around and stretch every hour.
  • Do regular stretching and strengthening exercises.
  • Keep the top of the computer screen at eye-level. This way, you will be looking down at the screen at a 15- to 20-degree angle which is less strenuous on the neck.
  • Adopt a good sitting posture. Sit upright and make sure both the feet are on the floor, and the elbows, knees, hips and ankles are at a 90-degree angle. Place a cushion against the back of the chair to support the lower back.  When typing for prolonged periods, sit close to the table and rest the elbows on the table to relieve stress from the shoulders and neck.

Related video: What causes lower back pain and how to treat it?

Treatment of spondylosis

Doctors usually recommend muscle relaxants and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen and naproxen to relieve the pain and stiffness. This is often combined with physiotherapy to stretch and strengthen the spine and lower back and neck muscles.

Surgery to remove bone spurs or affected discs is recommended for patients experiencing severe neurological problems such as weakness, pain and numbness in the arms and legs.

"Spinal problems caused by cervical and lumbar spondylosis are not life-threatening, but if left untreated, can lead to increased pain and decreased flexibility and mobility," says A/Prof Tan.  When nerves are pinched, damage to the nerves often occurs, resulting in permanent pain, numbness, weakness or poor coordination.

Advances in medical technology have made minimally invasive spinal surgeries possible for patients with even with severe spondylosis. These patients can expect less post-operative pain and faster recovery, A/Prof Tan adds.

This article was written by Teresa Cheong for Health Xchange, with expert input from the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Singapore General Hospital.

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Health Xchange's articles are meant for informational purposes only and cannot replace professional surgical, medical or health advice, examination, diagnosis, or treatment.