Ask anyone of your friends for their advice for methods to relieve back pain and you will get a variety of answers. Sleep with a pillow under your knees, go swimming twice a week, hang upside down from a door jam, use more fish oil and antioxidants, etc. Of course, many of these remedies while interesting, are not based on any corroborating scientific research. One of the biggest trends amongst people today is to use a large exercise ball, aka Swiss ball or physio ball, at work instead of an office chair. In fact, walk around your office today and more often than not, you are sure to find at least one person sitting on a ball or at least a ball in the corner of the conference room. However, the question remains, is this just another home remedy or something science supports?
The concept is relatively simple: when you sit in an office chair, your body is static, creating poor posture, weakening muscles and placing increased stress on the spine, causing pain. However, when you take that static component away and replace it with a dynamic exercise ball, you are forced to constantly activate the muscles in your pelvis and spine, creating greater strength in the core and improved posture, reducing pain.
But why does this matter? What does core strengthening have to do with back pain? In fact, what is “the core”? It’s a term that is thrown around very commonly, but most people have no idea what it means. The core refers to the muscle groups surrounding the low back and pelvis. This can include the deep pelvic muscles, buttock muscles, abdominal groups, etc. These core muscle groups are responsible for all motions that occur in the low back and lumbar spine. Therefore, weakness and imbalance will create abnormal motion and forces in the spine, contributing to pain. This is why there has been such a push to strengthen the core anytime a person has back pain through exercises and workout programs like Pilates, etc. By strengthening the core, there is a greater degree of control and stability in the spine, reducing pain.
Why don’t we all sit at exercise balls at work then? Well, while there are advantages to using an exercise ball to increase strength, there are also some downfalls. In a 2008 Dutch study published in Applied Ergonomics, researchers found that people who used an exercise ball when sitting for prolonged periods achieved the benefit of increased trunk motion and variability in muscle contraction. However, they also found there was a greater degree of spinal shrinkage and excessively high levels of muscle contraction in the exercise ball group compared to static chair use. Therefore, the disadvantages may outweigh the benefits in these cases. Unfortunately, to this point, there has been no published research on the pain relief benefits using an exercise ball.
So, while we may not yet have a concrete answer as to the clinical effect of using a Swiss ball at work, I recommend giving them a try. First, try using the ball at home initially, 30 – 60 minutes at day to start. Don’t just jump ahead to sitting on it all day, as this will lead to rapid muscle fatigue and worsening pain. You need to ease this type of activity into your daily routine. If you do eventually transition to using it at work, don’t spend your whole day sitting on the ball. It is necessary to give these muscle groups rest at multiple points throughout the day, not just with sleep. Try alternating every 2 hours between a chair and a ball at work.