Big questions: can the right chair prevent back pain?

sitting comfortably

Can using the right chair prevent back pain?

If I was given a pound for every time I’ve been asked this question (or a variant), I’d be fairly comfortably off by now. In my experience as an Alexander Technique teacher, one of the most common niggling worries for people from all walks of life is sitting. They have to do a lot of it (computers, cars, offices, orchestra rehearsals…) and are convinced that they aren’t doing it very well. Sometimes they even experience discomfort, or downright pain from sitting. If they just bought the right chair, would the problem go away?

Is this you? Are you wondering the same thing? Could buying the right chair prevent back pain?

I can’t give you a straight yes or no answer, unfortunately, because it’s a more complex issue than it might seem on the surface. So I’m going to give you two reasons why I say no, buying the new chair won’t help. But I also give you one reason why yes, thinking about the chair really will help you.

No the first: injury and disease

The first and most important thing to say is that if you have a diagnosed injury or a disease that causes your back pain, just buying a new chair won’t solve the issue. It might give you some relief, and some Alexander Technique lessons could help you move more efficiently to mitigate the effects of the condition. But a chair can’t cure you, and only a chair salesperson in need of a good commission would allow you to think so. Can the right chair prevent back pain? No, not if your problem is illness or injury.

But, I hear you say, I’m not injured. Should I go out and buy a nice new chair? Here’s why the answer is still no…

No the second: it isn’t the chair, it’s the way you sit in it!

It isn’t just me who gets asked frequently about furniture. FM Alexander had the exact same problem. And my answer to the question is the same as his: furniture isn’t the issue. It’s the way we use it that causes us problems. If someone has sat poorly (using too much muscular effort in the wrong places) on a cheap office chair for many months or years, is the purchase of a fancy new chair suddenly going to change her sitting habits? Does someone with poor dietary habits change his entire processes around food just because he purchased a slightly tight-fitting new suit? Probably not.

This is why FM Alexander was so concerned that we should have the mental tools to adapt ourselves to our environment. This particular passage I’m about to quote is primarily about child education, but if it’s good enough for kids, it’s probably true for the adults too:

What we need to to is not to educate our school furniture, but to educate our children. Give a child the ability to adapt himself within reasonable limits to his environment, and he will not suffer discomfort, not develop bad physical habits, whatever chair or form you give him to sit upon.*

My aim as an Alexander Technique teacher is to give you the tools so that you are able to organise yourself to be comfortable on ANY chair. If that interests you, then maybe you should talk to me about having some lessons.

But sometimes you do need to look at the furniture, too…

Did you see the caveat in FM’s statement? He says that the child should be able to adapt within reasonable limits. In other words, there may be times and places where you will need to take careful note of the chair or office set-up. After all, if you’re going to be using your desk for eight hours every day, it is clearly common sense to make sure that you are giving yourself the best conditions you can, within constraints of budget, time and common sense. Humans are adaptable, but that doesn’t mean we should live with something that is just not fit for purpose.

One of my friends once found herself with neck ache, even though she had a lovely new desk set-up at work. I asked her to tell me about it. It was a corner desk, she said, with lots of lovely room for all her books and notes right in front of her. The monitor was to her left, and the keyboard to her right.

I’ll say that again. Her monitor was to her left, and her keyboard to her right.

No wonder she was getting neck ache! When she changed her keyboard to the other side, the neck ache went away.

The moral of the story: there is no such thing as the perfect chair. The right chair won’t prevent discomfort; learning how to sit easily and efficiently is a much better solution. But if you are like my friend, you may want to take a good look at your office set-up too!

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT ed.,  p.92.
Image of Ai WeiWei’s Marble Chair (outside the Royal Academy) by Jennifer Mackerras

Back problems? Why spending money on STUFF may not help.

The latest big thing in back care in the workplace appears to be the sit-stand workstation. Again, it’s been in the news both here and in the USA that sitting – not just slouching, but sitting in any form –  for long periods is unnatural and dangerous. To avoid the evils of our chairs, what we apparently need to do (this month) is to spend loads of cash on a super-adjustable desk that we can use both sitting and standing. There are even versions available with a treadmill attachment.*

At this point I want to quote my American colleague, Lynn Brice Rosen: aaaaaargh…

When we start having problems with discomfort at our desks, it is SO tempting to look for the magic bullet: the one perfect product that will solve all our problems. I know this, because I’ve experienced it. When I was a postgrad student and my arms started hurting while I worked, I bought a fancy chair. I bought an ergonomic keyboard. I bought a fancy mouse.

I slouched on the fancy chair. I was smarter than it was.

I thumped away on the fancy keyboard.

I held the mouse in a death grip and crashed down on it whenever I clicked.

The stuff didn’t help. It just didn’t help.

The problem wasn’t the poor design of my equipment. The problem was me.

The problem wasn’t what I was doing. The problem was how I was doing it.

That’s why I despair every time I see a new report telling people to go out and spend money on stuff to fix their problems. Because I know that if most of them just stopped and really thought about HOW they were going about what they were doing, they could make substantial improvements to their wellbeing.

So if you’re suffering at your desk, this is my suggested plan of attack:

  1. Go to the GP and have it checked out. There may be a medical condition that needs attention.
  2. Set reminders so that you get up and move around. The Pomodoro Technique suggests 25 minute work periods.
  3. Have you left your pelvis behind? Experiment with rotating your pelvis forwards.
  4. Try the 50% less game. Can you type or click using half as much force?

And when you’ve tried these ideas, send me a message and let me know how you’re getting on. We really don’t need to spend money on more STUFF to make improvements to our wellbeing!

* You, like my husband, may feel that you’ve been on a treadmill at work, metaphorically speaking, for a while and have no wish to make it literal!

Not WHAT we do but HOW we do it: taking the strain away

keyboard with red stop keys

Last week I told you about how I started learning Alexander Technique in a last-ditch attempt to save my quality of life. I was suffering from RSI-like symptoms in my arms that didn’t respond to treatment from any health professional, and that was preventing me from working or doing any of my most-loved leisure activities. Like FM Alexander, I started to wonder if my problem wasn’t responding to medical treatment because it didn’t have a medical cause. I started to wonder if it was something I was doing that was causing my problems.

Okay, so I did a lot of arm-related activities. I used a computer every day for writing and research. I played recorder. I would knit most evenings, and I did a lot of cooking. But I knew lots of people who did just as many activities with their hands, or even more, and they weren’t suffering. So what was the difference? Why was I struggling?

Not what you do…

In order to discover the source of the hoarseness that was jeopardising his acting career, FM Alexander stood in front of a mirror and watched himself speak and recite. He realised that there must be something about the way he was going about the activity that was causing his problem. And after a lot of observation and experimentation, he discovered that there was a particular pattern of the way he organised his head in relation to his body during reciting that seemed to get in his way. It was HOW he was doing the activity that was causing his trouble.*

But how you do it…

Same with me. It wasn’t the computer that caused my problems. It was HOW I was using it. I was using too much force, and putting it into lots of areas where it was just inefficient and unnecessary.

What about you? Pick an activity that interests you, or that causes you trouble. And then do what FM did: have a good hard look at it. How are you doing that activity? Are you using too much energy? Are you using energy in the right places? What one thing could you change today? Make an experiment, and let me know how you get on.


* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.413.
Image by Stuart Miles,

Why BBC Apprentice Tom’s back pain chair won’t work!


The BBC TV series The Apprentice finished on Sunday when inventor Tom Pellereau won Lord Sugar’s £250 000 investment. I’ve like Tom all the way through the series, so I was a very happy viewer. There was, however, one moment in the programme when I simply hooted with laughter: when Tom first announced his business plan. Tom plans to create an anti back pain chair that will prevent injury and discomfort. This is his explanation of his business plan about 12 minutes into the final episode:

“The business is to save organisations money by reducing the personal and financial cost of back pain…The business is two-fold. It’s a service to measure the likelihood of employees having back pain, and it’s a set of chairs or furniture that will actually help you to train those muscles so that you’re much, much less likely to have back pain or other problems in the future.”*

Tom’s goal here is a good and noble one (even if Lord Sugar didn’t like it a bit!). Back pain and musculo-skeletal conditions generally are a major cause of workplace absence. When Dame Carol Black wrote a report on occupational health for the UK government in 2009, the economists working with her estimated the cost of workplace absence generally at one hundred billion pounds per year – with musculo-skeletal disorders being the most significnt culprit.**

So Tom’s instincts are correct. Back pain is a major issue in the UK. It is a major issue for employers.

So why do I say that Tom’s chair idea won’t work?

Tom is basing his whole business plan on two assumptions:

1. Back pain is caused by weak muscles

2. A back pain chair can be designed that will fix the weak muscles.

Let’s take these two points.


The Fallacy of Weak Muscles

There are any number of people out there, usually trying to sell you fancy chairs or shoes, that will tell you that any problems you may have with poise or posture are the result of weak muscles. Alexander puts it  little differently. He says that such problems are caused by undue rigidity in some muscles and undue flccidity in other muscles; but that the rigidity is found “in those parts of the muscular mechanism which are forced to perform duties other than those intended by nature.”

In other words, we use our bodies in ways other than intended by nature, for whatever reason. Some muscles then have to overwork to achieve the misuse. So Tom’s solution wouldn’t work, because it doesn’t deal with the misuse, and it doesn’t deal with the overworked muscles. In fact, it would try to strengthen the weak ones, so that all the muscles would be overworking!

And just in case the reader didn’t get his point, Alexander said, “all conscious effort exerted in attempts at physical actions causes in the great majority of people today such tension of the muscular system concerned as to led to exaggeration rather than eradication of the defects already present.” ***


Chairs are not the answer.

Chairs were the subject of my very first article, Teach the Chairs? In it I talked about the fact that, in Alexander’s view, chairs just don’t solve the problem. And it makes sense. If it is our misuse that causes the muscular rigidity in the first place, can we really expect that just purchasing a piece of furniture is going to fix the misuse?

We are smarter than furniture. Put bluntly, if we want to slump about, not even the fanciest ergonomic chair is going to stop us for long. If we have certain fixed ideas or erroneous preconceptions about what we need to do to sit at our computer, the provision of a fancy chair may make our employer feel better, but the chair cannot work on our misconceptions and change our thinking. Only we can do that.

Luckily, Lord Sugar didn’t much like the chair idea. He preferred the nail files. I admire his good judgement.

* Transcribed from the BBC TV programme The Apprentice. See
** Dame Carol Blck interviewed by Mark Porter on Radio 4, Case Notes, 7 April 2009.
*** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.62.
Image by winnond,