fending off the sciatica fairy.

We’re coming up on the anniversary of last year’s Month From Hell, when I was immobilized with back pain and on industrial-strength painkillers for weeks.  To avoid a rerun of that experience, I’ve been experimenting with a few things to improve my back health and decrease the strain on my spine.

To that end, I rigged up this setup to try a standing desk for a few days:

It’s just a little table of just the right height placed on top of my regular desk.  I’ve read a few studies and articles that tout the benefits of standing vs. sitting, but it’s not an easy thing to retrain someone who has basically spent every workday in the last sixteen years or so mostly sitting at a desk.

Have any of you tried out a standing desk, or are you currently using one?  If you tried and abandoned it, why did you not stick with it?  If you still use it, how long did it take you to get used to it?

I worked in retail once, and being on my feet all day was a bit tiresome at the end of a long day.  Maybe I’ll augment this setup with a drafting-type stool for the occasional upright sitting.  But I’m willing to try just about anything to avoid another one of those sciatica bouts.  That was without exaggeration the most painful, least pleasant month of my life so far.  If this works out, and I notice a reduction in back pain, I’ll rig something a little more permanent on top of the old desk, or build a dedicated standing desk instead.


26 thoughts on “fending off the sciatica fairy.

  1. Robert says:

    If it’s good enough for Donald Rumsfeld… You probably will need some sort of padding to stand on, though.

  2. Tam says:

    We fear change.

  3. Paul says:

    I began my career 31 years ago standing at a drafting board and when computers invaded I made individual stands for the monitor, keyboard and (then) digitizing tablet. This worked nicely until I was forced into a cubicle with modular ‘furniture’ that my stands wouldn’t fit on.
    I miss the drafting board, putting a nice crisp pencil line on vellum, carefully using a Rapidograph pen on mylar; there is no tactile feel to a keyboard and mouse. These days I sit at a desk and luckily my back is strong.
    I do think you’re on the right track though perhaps a more ‘custom’ stand that put the keyboard in an ergonomically correct position would ease the transition. Happy standing!

  4. Marja says:

    I’ve seen a recommendation somewhere to stand on one leg until exhaustion, then change legs and do the same with that leg. And do squats and walk daily.

    My work is mostly walking, I have been doing morning paper routes for nearly twenty years (plus this and that, but the paper routes have been the only steady job). Except last spring I had a knee injury and now I’m on a very extended sick leave.

    No back problems, never, while I was working, even though most days I spend the rest of the day in front of a computer. Then I was unable to walk properly for several months, and now my back is killing me. It’s not as bad as yours was, but might get there if I can’t start exercising soon. Luckily the knee seems to be about ready, I have started with short daily walks now and can probably get back to work soon.

  5. og says:

    use work mats.

    Replace them regularly. Do not stand barefoot, make sure you have shoes- or preferably boots- that support your ankles well. I can stand all day, if I do that.

    With Sciatica, I’d be inclined- especially if you intend to stand in one place all day- to set up a cervical traction device.


    You have to usually go to a physical therapist to get them to help you set the weight properly. Hope it helps you feel better and avoid back troubles, I wouldn’t wish them on Newt Gingrich.

  6. I have heard that walking is easier still on the back/legs than standing. There do exist treadmill desks, but they’re neither cheap nor petite.

    I’d be curious to hear how the standing desk works for you. It seems that, if nothing else, it might cut down on marathon videogaming sessions.

  7. Al T. says:

    Works for me. Last desk job I had I stood for all phone calls and I was on the phone often.

  8. Marja says:

    One more thought: squatting is presumably a more natural position for humans than sitting on a chair. I wonder if it would be possible to squat in front of a computer and still be able to type? Use something like your small table and squat down in front of it?

    Might take a while to get used to that position, but if typing is possible it might be worth a try. Or you could try something like a big exercise ball for a seat, that way you would at least be forced to use your muscles constantly (I’ve been planning to try the latter once I can figure out where to put the combination – small apartment. Besides, I am a bit worried whether those balls can stand a cat which likes to use it’s claws…)

  9. Peter says:

    I’m currently interning in the state legislature, and there is one person here who has a standing desk. When she does sit, she uses one of those big blue balls like Marja mentioned.

    I don’t know how it affects her back, but she’s got the cutest butt in the whole building.

  10. I’m in therapy for back issues right now, and according to my doc there’s apparently a 90-90-90 rule for desk-bound folk. Your chair should be positioned – and therefore your desk should be high enough – so that your knees can comfortably rest at 90 and your elbows can be at 90(ish) when you’re typing. Easy enough, right? The last 90 is the one that gets overlooked. Once the first two 90s are dealt with, your monitor(s) should be place so that you are looking straight at them, if not slightly higher. This is usually much higher than folks are used to.

    All these things combine to allow your spine to maintain its natural curves when you’re at a desk.


  11. Ed Skinner says:

    Try a restaurant supply store and ask for a coffee shop table. I have one in my office and move the notebook onto it (and get by with the smaller built-in monitor) to give my butt a break.

  12. BobG says:

    I’ve been fighting with sciatica the last couple of weeks myself, so I know what you’re going through. For me, it doesn’t really matter if I stand or sit, it still hurts as bad.

  13. Mike Clemens says:

    I’m at a standing desk right now, I’ve had it for about three months. Except for tired legs, I’ve noticed a *huge* difference (improvement) in the happiness of my back. I do have one of those rubber cushion mats, and that’s a boon.

    A proper standing desk can be expensive, and should be adjustable, but tell you the truth, I don’t fiddle with it much one it’s set. I’ve seen homebrew versions on the Ikea Hackers site, most recently this one:


    There are others, though. It’s worth a search. And WELL worth the switch.

  14. Windy Wilson says:

    When I worked as a bank teller just out of college it felt like for the first two weeks my internal organs were shifting around to adjust to standing all the time. I did get used to it though, and after a month or so a full day was merely tiring instead of exhausting and debilitating.
    As for a standing desk, I recall reading that Ernest Hemingway had one, for whatever reason. Interesting comment about taking phone calls standing up, one professor in my b school recommended standing staff meetings and standing telephone calls because they kept them short and to the point.
    The modular mat seems like a good idea; I’m going to get some for my kitchen and garage. How long are they supposed to last?
    There is also a sort of backless chair that you sit on more like a saddle, with your knees bent back so your toes are pointed into the floor slightly behind your buttocks, but you are regular chair height. That was supposed to be good for your back, too, although the toes of your shoes get all scuffed up.
    Instead of that cervical thing, another technique is to find a counter about waist height and lean on it with your hands, so your feet dangle, letting the back relax a bit, so the vertebrae sort of separate and realign themselves. This is what my brother did over a course of many years to heal his back after he strained it bench pressing in high school.

  15. Katrina says:

    Several people here at the office have desks on hydraulics that one can raise or lower to sit/stand.

    I know several authors who use walking treadmill desks and love them – lost weight, better sleep, improved productivity & creativity. When my other renovations are complete I hope to find a tread that I can place underneath my drafting table.

  16. Mike Dodson says:

    I spent a large part of my life on horseback (a lot of it in a standing or semi-standing position), behind a podium on a stage as an instructor, and at a standup desk as a shipping/receiving supervisor and manager. If you are able to move around — that is, get out and away from the desk periodically, it certainly is good exercise for your back. However, there are some dangers involved in maintaining the same position for an extended period of time. DON’T LOCK YOUR KNEES or you will find yourself passing out. Blood will also pool in your feet and lower legs and can result in varicosities.

  17. murgatr says:

    I worked in a pharmacy and was on my feet all day. The padded mats make a HUGE difference, plus I wear support socks and gel insoles in my shoes to keep the swelling down.

    Pharm.Tech. RDC’06

  18. Ruth says:

    Definetly look into the rubber mats, they’re worth it for standing long periods of time.

    You can get adjustable desks (someone else also mentioned these), where all or some of the desk is adjustable to different heights very easily. I had one at my last job and loved it.

    My suggestion. Spend some time at an office supply store and find an office chair that supports your back properly when sitting at a desk. It’ll be worth the money. THEN when sitting in it force yourself to sit BACK in it so it can support you, and adjust moniter and keyboard as needed so that works.

    Once you’ve done that, consider alternating between sitting and standing. Stand for an hour or two, then sit, with proper posture, for a while.

    I have upper back problems of my own, and these are all things I’ve learned the hard way!

  19. Caleb says:

    I use a standing desk at my home system, and I’ve really come to love it. I stay more alert, I get more work done. I’ll actually stand in a reasonable approximation of my shooting stance as well for a few minutes at a time to strengthen my calves.

  20. pun the librarian says:


    Long time reader, first time commenter.

    I have the same advice as many others here, standing desk seems to help with some back problems but perhaps only with a mat and/or good shoes. Adjustable desk would be wonderful.

    I wouldn’t like to use a standing desk all the time but since I have to sit all day at work I’ve decided to keep just a standing desk at home.

    For me, one of the reasons a standing desk probably helps is that you tend to stretch and move about more than when you are sitting down. I also keep light weights around when I use a standing desk and do a little workout while watching funny videos about cats.

  21. WROlsen says:

    I have used a combination approach for years and spend most of the day at a standing desk while reserving the normal desk for those times my legs complain.
    I don’t know if standing improves my productivity, but it certainly helps my personal well being.

  22. Dominique says:

    I have no personal experience with lower back pain, or with standing desks (my experience with drafting tables left something to be desired, but that’s likely a personal thing). In any case, have you looked into using a balance ball chair, or an exercise ball?

  23. Will says:

    Consider a foot rail, like some drinking establishments have. They have them because it enables people to stand at the bar longer without leg/back trouble driving them away.

    Plus, consider a back inversion unit for occasional breaks. Less hassle than the neck traction system mentioned. Watching tv while inverted is a hoot.

    Those kneeling chairs are good, but they require the proper angles, which some don’t have. I seem to recall the correct angles were part of the patent on the chair, so a lot of them were made wrong, and still available like that.

    As far as squatting, unless you grew up in an Asian culture that does it from childhood, I wouldn’t recommend trying it.

    Those floor pads are sold at most auto parts stores, usually in four packs. Might not be the quality of the ones Og mentions. They really help when standing in front of a workbench!

  24. HushedPuppy says:

    I use a standing desk (milk crate on top of the table), more and more as time goes by. I like it. For sciatica and pain, you may wish to try The Triggerpoint Therapy Workbook. Highly recommend it.

  25. Jared says:

    I bought myself a geek desk (geekdesk.com) for Christmas this year. I have 4 crushed disks. Sitting all day is a non starter for me. I can pull it off for about a week but then my back goes down hill fast.

    The geek desk can be jacked up and down at will. It makes it easy to change positions several times a day. I find I start out the day sitting, stand through the middle of the day, sit a bit in the afternoon, go back to standing in the early evening while I’m back and forth between the kitchen and the office preparing dinner and sneaking in little bits of work. Alternating positions helps me get in many more hours of work with less damage to my back.

    The next thing I’m looking at doing is putting a treadmill under the desk. http://officewalkers.ning.com/ When you look at the evolutionary environment of the human animal it probably featured more walking than sitting, squatting, standing or any other position.

  26. Didn’t go through the comments to see if this had been suggested, but a lot of folks here where I work use the large exercise balls to sit on. It forces you to sit properly, more comfortable than a stool.

    Me, I haven’t had any problems with my back since i started training In Aikido. I highly recommend it.

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