An overwhelming number of statistics and studies have revealed that anyone who spends any significant amount of time in an office chair each day is risking lower back pain for a variety of different reasons. While the world has yet to come up with an office chair that can completely obliterate back pain, we’ve made huge strides forward in the past fifteen years as the science of ergonomics has grown out of infancy and become the norm.
But what makes an office chair ‘good’ for lower back pain? There are quite a few answers to that question — the back is the support structure of the entire upper body, and every part of the upper body has a part to play in the health and comfort of the back.
Even the best ergonomic chair isn’t as good as it can be, because ergonomics regrettably is the science of how to best sit still. The best way to sit, however, isn’t still — so ergonomics isn’t the correct science to be applying; we need a science of motion as well as the science of space and shape. Nevertheless, let’s begin with the ergonomic portion of the guide and talk about what on a chair needs to be right for your workspace.
The Ergonomics Of Your Office Chair
The hardest part about designing office chairs is that people come in a lot of shapes and sizes — so a chair that’s perfect for one person will make another miserable. It might seem like the logical conclusion is that there’s no one ‘right chair’ for everyone, but that’s not good thinking. The logical conclusion is that companies have learned how to develop chairs that are adjustable in a variety of ways, so that a single chair can become right for everyone.
Some experts have said that the shape, length, and curvature of our spinal columns are as unique as our fingerprints — but the truth is that it’s even worse than that. Each individual person’s spine ‘decompresses’ each night as they sleep and then slowly shrinks over the course of each day — so your own spine can be as much as 2 inches shorter each night than in the morning. Having adjustable lumbar support, then, is vital. Office chairs generally have one of:
- Fixed support — no adjustability at all. Avoid these chairs at all costs.
- Movable support – the supporting curve can be moved up and down.
- Two-axis support – the supporting curve can move up, down, backward, and forward.
- Asymmetric support – allows the curve to tilt left and right; paired with one of the above.
The arms form just over 10% of the average person’s body weight — keeping them well supported is critical to avoiding muscle strain in the muscles of the upper back and shoulders. Armrests should keep your elbows supported so that your forearms are parallel with the ground. Elbow support comes with one of these armrest adjustment options:
- Movable support – US standards require all armrests to be adjustable up-and-down.
- Two-axis support – Many chairs also allow armrests to move forward and backwards.
- Pivot – Rarely, an armrest may be turned inward or outward from the elbow side.
The ‘seat pan’, or ‘place where you put your butt,’ needs to be deeper for taller individuals and shallower for shorter. That’s because the seat pan should support your thighs almost, but not quite, to the back of the knee. All office chairs allow for some amount of seat depth control; the only question is how many inches of motion the chair will allow. Two inches is typical; four is extraordinary.
Most people sit back in their chairs; some slouch, but a rare few actually sit forward, barely using the back of their chair at all. Most chairs support only the ‘sitting back without slouching’ position, but some chairs allow you to tilt the seat pan, making it significantly easier to sit forward or slouch back. There are three different kinds of seat tilt:
- None – The typical office chair does not support tilting the seat pan.
- Forward only – Some chairs allow the seat to move from flat to tilted forward.
- Forward-backward: Others allow the seat to tilt several degrees in either direction.
Reclining in an office chair is actually good for our backs — a recline of only twenty degrees can relieve stress on spinal discs by as much as 40%. There are quite a few variations on the reclining chair:
- No recline – Few chairs allow for no recline whatsoever, but they do exist.
- Single-pivot – Many chairs allow the seat to pivot from the bottom only. This can cause undue pressure on the thighs near the backs of the knee.
- Synchronous tilt – Like single-pivot, but the seat pan automatically tilts forward as the chair reclines, preventing the aforementioned thigh pressure.
- 3-point pivot – Like synchronous tilt, but also adds a pivot point at the top of the bar connecting the chair back to the seat pan, offering even more precise control and continuous lumbar support through almost any position.
Adding Motion to the Office Chair
Let’s go back to the concept of motion — the science is technically called kinesiology (kee-ness-ee-aw-loh-gee) — and how it plays into the above. The problem with ergonomics, as mentioned, is that it essentially is creating the most comfortable prison possible to work from. The best office chairs are not prisons; they’re made to enable motion rather than lock you into a set position.
Each of the elements of ergonomics already listed plays into this concept. The best office chairs adhere to all of those principles, but weave them together in a way that causes the chair to dynamically adapt to your motions as you make them. For example, if you lean forward to reach something on the far side of your desk, a kinesiologically-designed chair will move with you, inclining the seat pan and the backrest so that your leaning is enhanced by the motion of the chair.
In short, if your office chair doesn’t move with you, almost nothing else about it really matters. Any time you’re regularly locked into any position for a long period of time, you will develop lower back pain; it’s just a matter of time. Only a chair that adapts ergonomically (by being properly set to your body shape) and kinesiologically (by moving with you as you move) will allow you to remain at your desk all day and still walk home with a spring in your step and no pain in your back.
The Top 5 Office Chairs We’ve Encountered
- The Eames Executive Work Chair will set you back $3,099(!!) and is missing a couple of the adjustments suggested above, including any of the elements of kinesiology. It does, however, have a lot of ‘secondary’ benefits like being made from very high-quality material and having a phenomenal warranty.
- The Steelcase Leap is less mobile than the Executive Work Chair, so it’s not as helpful for lower back pain — but it is mobile, which is good, and it has a complete set of ergonomic adjustments for only $2999.99.
- The Back Pain Relief Chair costs only $595 and is in full accordance with all of the principles above, featuring a complete set of ergonomic adjustments and a completely kinesiology-approved counterbalanced movement system. It’s the best overall value for anyone suffering from low back pain.
- The Ikea Marcus was voted “best comfort for the money” by a few different polling websites — and for only $199, it’s easy to see why. But it’s lacking in even a complete set of ergonomic adjustments, much less any trace of actual kinesiologic movement ability.
- The Turcotte Luxura is pretty much the low end of office chairs, with exactly one adjustment: height. But at a mere $59.99, it’ll due for those who can’t afford anything better.
Obviously, the ‘right chair’ for any one person is a matter of budget, style, and how badly you want to be rid of your lower back pain — but among these five, there’s probably one that will do the job to your standards.