Video gaming is good for a lot of things. There’s science that shows it can improve reflexes, critical thinking, and other super useful stuff. But for the most part it isn’t a real driver for physical fitness. Outliers like Wii Fit and Just Dance excepted, the vast majority of gaming is spent in a fairly motionless position on couch or chair.
That’s… not great for your body. From early reports of “joystick thumb” to modern-day eSports athletes getting their aching wrists repaired, gaming at the hardcore level can take its toll. One of the biggest and most important areas for humans to take care of is the back.
Lower back pain is a big issue for gamers. When you get absorbed in a digital world, it’s all too easy to forget about good posture. Some of the symptoms you might have noticed include aches and pains, restricted movement and tingling or weakness in the legs.
Even if you haven’t started feeling aches and pains in your lower back, practicing some of these techniques will shore up your core. It will also prevent bad times in the future.
What Causes Back Pain
The human body is a remarkable device, capable of performing a wide variety of physical feats. However, it also craves variety. Sitting in the same posture for too long can be harmful to your muscles and joints. And when you’re gaming, it’s a pretty fair bet that you’re not thinking about your posture.
Taking a look inside, it’s fairly simple to see how that part of the human body works. The spine runs down the center of your back, a column of separate bones enclosing a bundle of nerves that send sensations and information to and from the brain. In between the bones are disks of cartilage, which allow you to bend and twist your back in a variety of ways. The whole setup is supported and facilitated by a network of muscles.
Back pain can result from a number of different issues. The simplest is a strain or sprain in one of those muscles, either through vigorous activity or (more likely for gamers) extended time sitting in bad posture. That is, thankfully, also the easiest to repair on your own.
More dangerous is damage to the disks in your spine, which is often caused by bending motions where your back is rounded, not straight. Those disks can push into the nerves of the spinal cord, causing constant pain, paralysis and more. Definitely not what you want to do to your body.
The absolute best piece of advice we can give gamers worried about lower back pain is simple: walk away for a little bit. Modern games have pause buttons for a reason, and most of them also come with warnings when you boot them up that explicitly tell you to keep your sessions to a reasonable length of time. Yes, we know that’s not always possible – you can’t pause a raid in an MMORPG, for instance – but it’s very valuable to take five to ten minutes out of at least every hour you play and go for a short walk, rest your eyes, and stretch your muscles.
These don’t have to be massive breaks, but your body will thank you for them. And yes, this does reduce your total gaming time on the whole, but it’ll enable you to perform better for longer.
Fix Your Setup
Consciously remembering to adjust your posture while you’re caught up in a game is pretty difficult. But you can do a little bit of prep work before you power up your battle station to prevent physical damage. Here are some quick tips.
Neck alignment is a big driver of back pain, and the simplest adjustment you can make involves your field of vision. For pretty much any media consumption, you want the top edge of your monitor to be at natural resting eye level. Way too many people, especially if they’re gaming on laptops or portable devices, curl up and hunch over to play. That puts pressure on the neck and spine. By keeping your head perpendicular to the floor, you force your spine to be straight.
The second half of this method involves making sure your feet are planted flat on the floor. This helps move your pelvis into a position that supports your core and lower back. The combination of head and feet in proper position will take a little getting used to, especially if you’re a sloucher, but it will pay real dividends.
Finally, a little bit of furniture adjustment might be able to help you forestall back pain during marathon sessions. If you think “gaming chairs” are just corny wastes of money, think again. The best of them are designed specifically for long-term usage and help automatically shape your body into the best position. If you can’t afford a good chair, one piece of advice is to insert a rolled up towel between the top of your tailbone and the chair’s back to remind you to keep it straight.
After The Injury
For some of the geeks out there, it might be too late. You could already be suffering from gaming-related lower back pain. As a caveat before we launch into this next section: we’re not doctors. We’re not even Time Lords. So we can’t dispense medical advice. Before starting any program of exercise, talk to a physician.
The absolute best thing you can do for your back is stretch on a daily basis. Stretching increases flexibility, works out strains and strengthens your core muscles, so they support your spine better. Here’s a quick regimen of floor stretches that you can do on any relatively soft surface with no additional equipment.
– On your back, bend one knee and plant the foot flat on the floor. With the other leg, bring it straight up above your pelvis (it’s OK to have a slight bend in your knee) and put your hands on your calf. Pull towards your head to stretch your hamstring and lower back. Hold each leg for 30 seconds.
– Still, on your back, straighten one leg with your toes pointing towards the ceiling. Bring your other knee to your chest, holding just below the kneecap with both hands, and keep it there for 20 seconds. This helps relax your glutes – the muscles in your butt that you use for sitting.
– Staying on your back, rotate your head to one side of the room and your torso to the other side, twisting gently through your spine. Keep the bottom leg straight and bring the top leg out, bent at the hip and knee. Rest the hand of the arm on the torso side on top of the bent knee and hold each side for 20 seconds. This is a great one for sciatic nerve pain.
At The Gym
An exercise program can also help you build your body to a point where marathon gaming sessions won’t do quite so much damage. Exercises like Pilates or yoga can improve flexibility and long muscle strength, allowing you to naturally pursue better posture.
There are even companies looking to gamify back health itself. Valedo is a wearable device consisting of a pair of sensors that attach to your lower back and chest that sync with an iPhone game where you run through an obstacle course. The body movements that the game requires help strengthen lower back muscles, but the downside is that the device costs $359, which is pretty steep.
Whatever you decide to do, the first step is recognizing that lower back pain isn’t something any gamer should have to live with. You have the power to get rid of it, so get your stretch on, and we’ll see you back here in a few minutes.