Standing or Sitting? Which Is Better for Degenerative Disc Disease?

Question: Sitting has always been a problem for me with my degenerative disc disease. Consequently, I have been mostly standing at my workstation because it gets me by. However, I recently had a flare up and am wondering if standing is making my condition worse. I know I should do some sitting and some standing, but do I need to worry about the standing—as long as I make sure I'm using good posture?
—Albany, NY

woman exercising at desk, pilates ball, adjustable deskAnswer: You bring up many great points in this question! First and foremost, it's not surprising to me that your degenerative disc disease has made sitting difficult for you. One of the classic symptoms of DDD is pain that worsens when you've been sitting for a lengthy period of time. This is because sitting puts much more pressure on your low back than when you're standing.

But that does not mean that standing alone is the answer to your problems. It's great that you understand the importance of good posture. But standing in one place for long periods, even if you do make an effort to keep proper posture, can still cause pain. In fact, workers who stand during most of the workday face their own set of potential pitfalls, and you can read more about them in an article about back care and standing work.

I see that you understand the need to mix up sitting and standing—so you have the right idea. Just as it's painful to sit for long stretches of time, so too can standing be painful when you've been in the same position for too long. So how long is too long? Well, it depends on the person, but a good guideline to keep in mind is to get up and move every 20-30 minutes.

Easily convert your workspace into a height-adjustable and functional desk
Instead of standing or sitting for prolonged periods of time at your workstation, you may want to consider an adjustable desk or sit-stand desk. You don’t need to replace your current workstation. Rather, set up an adjustable height work surface on top of your existing desktop. There are many sturdy types that allow you to customize your work space from dual monitor setups and two-tiered surfaces. The varying tiers can accommodate your keyboard and mouse, and other necessities. Furthermore, the adjustable desk allows you to transition easily from sitting to standing and back.

Read our article, Is a Sit-Stand Desk Right for Me? 7 Things to Consider

Frequent breaks help stave off pain
Everyone experiences pain differently with degenerative disc disease. But in many cases, taking frequent breaks to move around helps stave off DDD pain. And walk breaks are among the best ways to reduce your symptoms. Take a walk through the office or a stroll around the office building if the weather's nice. The key is to not stay in one place for too long.

Flex, stretch and strengthen
As a physical therapist, I'd also highly recommend doing some flexibility stretches and strengthening exercises that target your core and back muscles. Finding a balance between forward movements (lumbar flexion) and backwards movements (lumbar extension) can help reduce much of the symptoms both from sitting and standing.

Frequent performance of extension after sitting for periods of time is highly recommended. Adding gentle flexion movements when the pain has reduced can help prevent stiffness returning.

A physical therapist may also teach you some practical ways to specifically help reduce your pain at work, including directional preference exercises that can eliminate leg pain, as well as proper lifting and walking techniques. By incorporating these simple exercises and taking regular walking breaks, your DDD pain may be kept and bay—making your work days much more comfortable.