Are you a "Desk Athlete"?
Updated: Jun 29
In Motion with Morrison Blog
Written by Aubrey Morrison
MS Sports Medicine, CSCS, Licensed Massage Therapist #16763
When you have an inactive job, such as being at a desk, it is important to get some good activity in at the gym! Lifting, running, yoga, spin, whatever your choice is. While it is fabulous that you are getting your workouts in, there are a few things to keep in mind if you fall into this “desk athlete” category. The person who sits at a desk for work all day will likely have several common but particular problems; even if you don’t work out, you can still suffer from overuse injury from just being at that desk. The same muscles in the same position doing the same motions day after day, although seated (or standing if you are lucky enough to have a standing desk!), causes wear and tear on soft tissue and joints. When you add workouts to the muscle imbalances that the desk work creates, it is pretty much a matter of time before something becomes a nagging pain or even an injury. Instead of waiting for these pains to resolve themselves, figure out what the issue could be, and it could be a pretty simple fix!
The most common desk-related issues I come across as a massage therapist are in the neck and shoulders, mid and low back, and wrists. Again, even without adding in workouts, these areas can absolutely still be problematic; exercise will simply increase risk of injury if the movements contribute to further wear and tear and imbalance. The right therapeutic treatment combined with workouts to reverse the imbalance could be the key to decreasing chronic pain!
Let’s start with neck, upper back, and shoulders. The problem is actually because your anterior muscles (in your chest, shoulders, and neck) are tight! When you do desk work (or text on your phone, drive, hold babies, etc etc), it puts the upper anterior muscles in a shortened position. Pretty much everything we do is in front of us, so we are often in that position even if we aren’t at a desk all day. Eventually those muscles become chronically tight. As a result, the posterior muscles in the neck, back, and shoulders are playing tug-of-war to keep your body in alignment and fight gravity. This makes them overly active, and they feel tense and can form painful knots and trigger points. Further, with the head and shoulders in a forward position, stress is put on the vertebrae and discs are compressed. Now, add weightlifting to this. Typical lifting workouts involve chest and shoulders; like bench press, overhead press, push-ups, all those “pushing” movements. When your chest is already tight, these kinds of lifts contribute to further imbalance and possible injury over time. Any overhead position for your shoulders with this imbalance is very difficult and often painful! Can you reach overhead without anything feeling pulled or painful, or any clicking noises? If shoulders are not aligned and not functioning properly, and part of your gym routine involves overhead positions, injury (or at least irritating pain discomfort) is likely. Get those anterior muscles stretched out, get the shoulders aligned and mobile, and add plenty of pulling exercises into your gym routine if you have a desk job.
Treating low back is a little different than upper back because it can be a little less straightforward. First of all, being seated for a long time at a desk and leaning forward slightly puts stress on the lumbar region of your spine, and disc compression can cause all sorts of pain in various places. Also, being seated deactivates your glute muscles (your *behind*), and your low back muscles now have to make up for what your glutes should be doing in terms of stability and mobility of your hips. For example, bending down to pick up a box: glutes should be mostly in charge of this action, but if they “don’t know” how to function properly because of imbalance from sitting, you will use your vulnerable low back muscles and injury may result. Weak glutes often means tight low back. And this can become an injury inside or outside of the gym. At the same time, glutes will be tight and tender because sitting keeps the rotator and abductor muscles there in a shortened position. During a massage, we will absolutely treat the low back muscles, but we will definitely target your glutes and other muscles that attach into your hips. To combat low back tightness outside of massage would involve stretching your hip rotators and doing exercises for glute activation.
The forearms, wrists, and hands are also at risk of overuse and injury doing desk work. Tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, De Quervain syndrome, and general pain and inflammation are very common injuries from working at a desk. Treating these are a little different because they are diagnosed chronic inflammatory conditions that may even need surgery. Massage can help the inflammatory process, relieve tension in surrounding muscles, break up scar tissue that causes dysfunction, and restore range of motion and balance. And definitely help with pain management! If we know you work at a desk and don’t even have wrist pain, we will treat the area anyway as a prevention.
So in summary: Working at a desk often causes muscle imbalances, overactive muscles, trigger points, and inflammation in the neck, shoulders, back, and wrists. If you are an active person, that is awesome and you should keep at it, especially if you have an inactive job! Just be mindful of what could be going on with your workouts and if you feel any aches and pains that don’t seem to be letting up. Instead of waiting for it to go away on its own, do something about it before it becomes an injury! We know where to relieve pain, where to treat for correcting the problem, and how to tell you what else you can do for long term relief and wellness. A sports massage is great for helping keep you healthy in your activity, but our Mobility Maker is designed for both active and non-active individuals with pains or injuries from immobility due to factors other than sports. So we’ve got you covered!
Author of Article
MS Sports Medicine, BS Biology, LMBT #16763, CSCS