Time-varying changes in the lumbar spine from exposure to sedentary tasks and their potential effects on injury mechanics and pain generation
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General body discomfort increases over time during prolonged sitting and it is typically accepted that no single posture can be comfortably maintained for long periods. Despite this knowledge, workplace exposure to prolonged sitting is very common. Sedentary occupations that expose workers to prolonged sitting are associated with an increased risk of developing low back pain (LBP), disc degeneration and lumbar disc herniation. Given the prevalence of occupations with a large amount of seated work and the propensity for a dose-response relationship between sitting and LBP, refining our understanding of the biomechanics of the lumbar spine during sitting is important. Sitting imposes a flexed posture that, when held for a prolonged period of time, may cause detrimental effects on the tissues of the spine. While sitting is typically viewed as a sedentary and constrained task, several researchers have identified the importance of investigating movement during prolonged sitting. The studies in this thesis were designed to address the following two global questions: (1) How do the lumbar spine and pelvis move during sitting? (2) Can lumbar spine movement and postures explain LBP and injury associated with prolonged sitting? The first study (Study 1) examined static X-ray images of the lower lumbo-sacral spine in a range of standing and seated postures to measure the intervertebral joint angles that contribute to spine flexion. The main finding was that the lower lumbo-sacral joints approach their total range of motion in seated postures. This suggests that there could be increased loading of the passive tissues surrounding the lower lumbo-sacral intervertebral joints, contributing to low back pain and/or injury from prolonged sitting. Study 2 compared external spine angles measured using accelerometers from L3 to the sacrum with corresponding angles measured from X-ray images. While the external and internal angles did not match, the accelerometers were sensitive to changes in seated lumbar posture and were consistent with measurements made using similar technology in other studies. This study also provided an in-depth analysis of the current methods for data treatment and how these methods affect the outcomes. A further study (Study 3) employed videofluoroscopy to investigate the dynamic rotational kinematics of the intervertebral joints of the lumbo-sacral spine in a seated slouching motion in order to determine a sequence of vertebral motion. The pelvis did not initiate the slouching motion and a disordered sequence of vertebral rotation was observed at the initiation of the movement. Individuals performed the slouching movement using a number of different motion strategies that influenced the IVJ angles attained during the slouching motion. From the results of Study 1, it would appear as though the lowest lumbar intervertebral joint (L5/S1) contribute the most to lumbo-sacral flexion in upright sitting, as it is at approximately 60% of its end range in this posture. However, the results from Study 3 suggest that there is no consistent sequence of intervertebral joint rotation when flexing the spine from upright to slouched sitting. When moving from standing to sitting, lumbar spine flexion primarily occurs at the lowest joint (i.e. L5/S1); however, a disordered sequence of vertebral motion the different motion patterns observed may indicate that different joints approach their end range before the completion of the slouching movement. In order to understand the biomechanical factors associated with sitting induced low back pain, Study 4 examined the postural responses and pain scores of low back pain sufferers compared with asymptomatic individuals during prolonged seated work. The distinguishing factor between these two groups was their respective time-varying seated lumbar spine movement patterns. Low back pain sufferers moved more than asymptomatic individuals did during 90 minutes of seated work and they reported increased low back pain over time. Frequent shifts in lumbar spine posture could be a mechanism for redistributing the load to different tissues of the spine, particularly if some tissues are more vulnerable than others. However, increased movement did not completely eliminate pain in individuals with pre-existing LBP. The LBP sufferers’ seated spine movements increased in frequency and amplitude as time passed. It is likely that these movements became more difficult to properly control because LBP patients may lack proper lumbar spine postural control. The results of this study highlight the fact that short duration investigations of seated postures do not accurately represent the biological responses to prolonged exposure. Individuals with sitting-induced low back pain and those without pain differ in how they move during seated work and this will have different impacts on the tissues of the lumbar spine. A tissue-based rational for the detrimental effects on the spinal joint of prolonged sitting was examined in Study 5 using an in vitro spine model and simulated spine motion patterns documented in vivo from Study 4. The static protocol simulated 2 hours of sitting in one posture. The shift protocol simulated infrequent but large changes in posture, similar to the seated movements observed in a group of LBP sufferers. The fidget protocol replicated small, frequent movements about one posture, demonstrated by a group of asymptomatic individuals. Regardless of the amount of spine movement around one posture, all specimens lost a substantial amount of disc height. Furthermore, the passive range of motion of a joint changed substantially after 2 hours of simulated sitting. Specifically, there were step-like regions of reduced stiffness throughout the passive range of motion particularly around the adopted “seated flexion” angle. However, small movements around a posture (i.e. fidgeting) may mitigate the changes in the passive stiffness in around the seated flexion angle. The load transferred through the joint during the 2-hour test was varied either by changing postures (i.e. shifting) or by a potential creep mechanism (i.e. maintaining one static posture). Fidgeting appeared to reduce the variation of load carriage through the joint and may lead to a more uniform increase in stiffness across the entire passive range of motion. These changes in passive joint mechanics could have greater consequences for a low back pain population who may be more susceptible to abnormal muscular control and clinical instability. Nevertheless, the observed disc height loss and changes in joint mechanics may help explain the increased risk of developing disc herniation and degeneration if exposure to sitting is cumulative over many days, months and years. In summary, this work has highlighted that seated postures place the joints of the lumbar spine towards their end range of motion, which is considered to be risky for pain/injury in a number of tissue sources. In-depth analyses of both internal and external measurements of spine postures identified different seated motion patterns and self-selected seated postures that may increase the risk for developing LBP. The model of seated LBP/discomfort development used in this thesis provided evidence that large lumbar spine movements do not reduce pain in individuals with pre-existing LBP. Tissue-based evidence demonstrated that 2 hours of sitting substantially affects IVJ mechanics and may help explain the increased risk of developing disc herniation and degeneration if exposure to sitting is cumulative over many days, months and years. The information obtained from this thesis will help develop and refine interventions in the workplace to help reduce low back pain during seated work.