Is bad posture ruining my spine?

by Rosi Sexton
Man experiencing neck pain while working on a laptop with bad posture.
Image by Freepik

Many of my clients worry about their bad posture. I know this, because they often tell me about it before I even get as far as the physical examination. “My posture’s terrible”, they confess – in the same guilty way that someone might admit to their doctor that they eat too much fast food, or to their dentist that they haven’t been very good at keeping to their regular check ups. I can almost see them bracing themselves for yet another lecture about sitting up straight. When I tell them that actually, it’s probably not a major cause for concern, they’re often surprised.

Perhaps you’re in a similar boat? If that’s the case, you’re certainly in good company. Let’s take a look at what the evidence tells us.

What exactly do we mean by “bad posture”?

To a therapist, “bad posture” can mean lots of different things. It could be the way your pelvis tilts forward when you’re standing, the habit you’ve got of shifting most of your weight onto one leg if you have to wait in a queue for a while, the awkward way you hold your shoulders while playing the guitar, or the way you sit slumped at your desk on a Friday afternoon.

It can become confusing to pin down what good posture looks like, even when we limit ourselves to a sitting position. In fact, to a large extent, good posture is in the eye of the beholder. There’s no gold standard for how a human being “should” stand or sit or move. One medical dictionary has this to say:
“Good posture cannot be defined by a rigid formula; it is usually considered to be the natural and comfortable bearing of the body in normal, healthy persons.”

That definition calls into question the very idea of an “ideal sitting position”. One study showed that when they asked subjects to hold a position often regarded as “good posture”, it turned out to be so unnatural that it couldn’t even be achieved without assistance, and required active effort to maintain. The researcher pointed out that “It may be that slumped postures are uncomfortable for the spine and may cause people some problems, but the science to actually test or prove that is really weak.”

Another study, which examined spinal disc movement via MRI in a range of different seated positions, suggests that sitting up straight may not be best for your back after all. It recommends reclining your chair instead!

Is there any evidence that posture does (or doesn’t) contribute to pain?

Given the lack of consensus about what “good posture” even looks like; a lot of new-school physical therapists have started to be skeptical of the link between posture and pain.

There are some studies which suggest that posture is likely to be less of a factor in various pain conditions than may have been previously thought (if, indeed, it has any effect at all). As is often the case, though, there’s a shortage of good, comprehensive evidence on this topic, so it’s hard to come down firmly on one side or the other.

Bear in mind that these studies are mainly based on comparing healthy people with those who develop back pain. If you already have back pain then it may be a different story; in that case you may find some positions aggravate it more than others, and it makes sense to avoid them. This is something to discuss with your osteopath or physical therapist. And while there’s probably not a strong causal link between posture and pain, the reverse is not necessarily the case. In some cases, back pain may actually cause poor posture, as this small study hints.

Another consideration is that trying to force yourself to sit with “good posture” can cause you to be more uncomfortable. In fact, it can sometimes make you more prone to developing tension related pain. It’s entirely possible that worrying about your posture might make your back hurt more.

Is posture the problem, or is it lack of movement?

Staying in any one position for too long is often uncomfortable, if not painful. Some postures become painful faster than others; but even the best position will start to nag at you if you stay there for hours on end. Perhaps this is a good thing! It is one way that your body has of reminding your to move.

Changing position frequently, or getting up and moving around regularly are easy ways to reduce the discomfort of being sedentary. If you’re willing to invest a little more money and effort, then sit–stand desks allow you to switch between sitting down and standing up to work (although the problem then becomes remembering to use them!)

There is still some debate over whether prolonged sitting is itself a causative factor in chronic pain conditions, regardless of which sitting position you choose. What we’re fairly sure of, though, is that spending a lot of time sitting down is bad for you in plenty of other ways. It’s been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, even amongst people who exercise.

So, perhaps we should worry less about how to sit better, and try to find ways to reduce the time we’re sitting at all.

The verdict: your posture probably matters less than most people think.

It’s possible that there are circumstances where posture may be more of an issue, but there’s not enough evidence to be sure. We can’t even say for certain what the best sitting posture is; but we can be confident that it’s a good idea to avoid staying in any one position for too long at a time. There’s no one right way to sit or stand, but we’re all better off moving regularly.

See also: Five ways to work from home instead of living at work