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Why does my gaming chair hurt my back?

Gaming chairs support good posture, but the results aren’t automatic. In fact, without proper usage, using one may cause back pain. Luckily, healthy sitting tactics are well-documented. With a proper understanding of the basics, using a gaming chair becomes easier. If your gaming chair is causing you back pain, follow the steps in this guide.

Why is my gaming chair hurting my back?
Using a gaming chair the wrong way will harm your back rather than helping it.

‘Ergonomic’ office furniture is adjustable. Humanscale defines it as “the science of fitting a workplace to the user’s needs.” The aim is to increase productivity while reducing discomfort.

Ergonomic chair functionality and purpose

Like many ergonomic definitions, Humanscale’s leaves a lot of room for interpretation. To cut through the ambiguity, we sifted through top healthy sitting studies and found a consensus.

Neutral sitting posture examples
The point of any type of ergonomic chair is to support fluid, neutral postures over long periods. (click to enlarge)

  1. Sitting for long periods stresses the spine and surrounding muscles. Using a neutral sitting style is the recommended way to counteract ill effects.
  2. To quality as ‘ergonomic’, a chair needs three adjustable features. Those are adjustable lumbar, adjustable armrests, and reclining backrest. Combined, the point of those features is to support fluid, neutral postures.

Reality: ergonomic ≠ automatic

The best high-end, $1000+ ergonomic chairs do the same fundamental job as both cheap ergonomic office chairs and gaming chairs. That is to support the user into a neutral sitting position. Chairs like the $1500 Herman Miller Embody cost more because they stack luxuries (not the same as necessities) on top.

Herman Miller Embody synchro-tilt feature
The Embody adds nice (but not necessary) luxuries like a synchronous seat tilt.

But even when you pay $1500, the Embody’s “ergonomics” are not “automatic”. “Ergonomic” simply means the chair has adjustable parts that adapt to the user (to support neutral sitting).

In 2021, the closest thing to an “automatic” model is the $1,419 Humanscale Freedom chair. That chair only lets you adjust the height of the seat and backrest. Everything else is self-adjusting based on counterbalances and gravity.

Humanscale Freedom chair
The Humanscale Freedom chair’s automatic adjustments don’t give the user any custom controls.

In the ergonomic chair industry, Humanscale Freedom chairs are an exception to the norm. Most popular ergonomic office and gaming chairs have user-controlled features.

Ergonomic chair support foundations compared
All ergonomic chairs emphasize lumbar support as the primary foundation for neutral sitting.

On ChairsFX, one of the most complex (and expensive) models is the $1395 Herman Miller Aeron chair. One of the cheapest is the $179 Autofull Sword gaming chair. Both meet modern ergonomic standards with the same end goal:

The point of every ergonomic chair is to help users maintain a neutral posture while sitting.

With proper use of features, gaming chair owners can enjoy healthy sitting over long periods. Conversely, improper use will destroy posture and obliterate computing productivity.

Sloppy versus healthy sitting in a gaming chair
Sloppy sitting in your gaming chair chair will negate potential benefits. Sitting with a neutral posture achieves the opposite.

If you buy any type of ergonomic chair, keep this in mind. Effective user control of the ergonomic features will define the value you get out of your chair.

Video: comfortable sitting in a gaming chair

This short video demonstrates the effective use of a gaming chair’s key components. Master the use of your lumbar support, armrests, and recline. That will unlock the full potential of your chair, letting you enjoy long periods of comfortable, healthy sitting:

Neutral sitting fundamentals

Whether you buy a $1000 Steelcase Gesture or $140 Von Racer gaming chair, you need to use it the same way. That is by adopting a neutral posture as your default position.

Neutral sitting examples in various ergonomic chairs
No matter which type of ergo chair you use, a neutral position should be your default posture.

The gist of the neutral sitting position is:

  1. Feet flat on the floor around shoulder-width apart. Feet in this position support the spine by absorbing the weight of the trunk.
  2. Knees bent at around 90 degrees, with hips positioned slightly above the knees.
  3. Back straight, head balanced, eyes pointed straight ahead.

The most important component of a neutral sitting position is lumbar support. Below explains why.

Cheap wooden chair lumbar demo

Test the power of effective lumbar support using a wooden chair and a towel. First, sit down in the chair using only your back muscles to hold up your torso. After a few minutes, your back muscles will begin to tire. Notice what happens. In most cases, as the back tires, people lean against the backrest for support. As a result, the hips curl forward.

Slouching in a cheap wooden chair
When back muscles tire, the seated body tends to curl into a slouch.

Next, roll up a towel to serve as temporary lumbar support. Scoot your hips as far back in the seat pan as possible. After that, lean back until your spine touches the chair. Finally, stuff the rolled-up towel between the backrest and your lumbar area.

Below, I use a rolled-up towel in the left image and a Secretlab memory foam lumbar pillow in the right image. Both had the same stabilizing effect, although the memory foam pillow was obviously more comfortable.

Healthy sitting with basic lumbar support
Even in a simple chair, basic lumbar support makes it much easier to sit upright.

As soon as the towel (or pillow) touches your lumbar curve, your upper back will reflexively straighten.

DIY ghetto ergonomic chair

If you only have a wooden chair at home, a towel or rolled-up yoga mat can help you use it as a full-time office chair.

DIY ergonomic lumbar support
DIY ergonomic chair with an (adjustable) yoga mat lumbar. This supports up to 15 minutes of high-intensity computing.

In the right image, notice that the lumbar area is the only support holding the back up straight. With only a rolled-up yoga mat providing posture support, comfort holds for around 15 minutes. After that, upper body muscles begin to tire. After taking a walking break to refresh, return to your desk for another 15-minute round of work.

This DIY ergonomic hack isn’t ideal, but it works. It also shows clearly the point of any type of ergonomic chair. With proper lumbar support, it’s easier for users to maintain a neutral sitting posture. Below explains in physiological terms why neutral sitting is so important for good health.

Lumbar support physiology

The human body is better suited for movement than sitting for long periods. As a physiological example, spinal curvatures and pelvic orientation differ when standing and sitting.

Sitting versus standing mechanics
Sitting reduces the sacral slope and flattens the lumbar curve.

While sitting, the pelvis tilts forward, while the sacral slope (S.S.) narrows. Slouching decreases the sacral slope even further. As a result, the lumbar curve gets almost completely flattened. That places more pressure on the five lumbar discs.

Sitting without lumbar support
A flattened lumbar spine eventually throws the whole body out of alignment.

Here are the facts (source):

  1. When standing, the optimal lordotic angle is between 20-45 degrees.
  2. Unsupported sitting reduces lumbar lordosis by 50%. It also increases intradiscal pressure at the third lumbar vertebra by 40%.
  3. When sitting with a back angle of 110° and a lumbar support 4 cm deep, lumbar lordosis averages a healthy 47° angle.
  4. The depth of the lumbar support depends on the individual. If lumbar support causes discomfort, it means it is set too high, too low, or too deep.
  5. A sustained lordotic sitting position decreases disc pressure and thereby disc degeneration.

To maintain a neutral posture in a gaming chair, use the same principles as in the wooden chair + yoga mat demo.

Gaming chair versus DIY ergo chair
Gaming chairs use the same principles as our wooden yoga mat ergo chair, souped-up with luxury extras.

Adjust the lumbar pillow to fit your lower back curve. Then sit down in the chair deep enough for your lower back to touch the lumbar pillow. That on its own will promote a straight spine.

Learn more: lumbar support biomechanics

Neutral sitting office worker case studies

Here are two case study summaries heralding the benefits of sitting in a neutral position:

Anil Ramsey, ChairsFX founder

For the past five years, I’ve been working from home as a full-time desk worker. I bought my first gaming chair in 2017, and it literally changed my life.

These days, I usually sit in gaming chairs around 12 hours per day, six days a week. 95% of that time is spent doing desk work. 5% of the time is spent gaming. Through the years, gaming chairs have definitely helped me to sit longer, feel better, and be more productive.

Secretlab Titan workstation
Since 2017, gaming chairs have been supporting my health, wellness, and computing productivity.

Byron D, Toronto-based office worker

As another example, last year ChairsFX sent an Anda Seat Dark Wizard to a Canadian office worker. The only instruction we gave him was to focus on sitting in a neutral position.

Anda Seat Dark Wizard sizing
Canadian office worker using a Dark Wizard gaming chair for full-time support.

After one month of use, he sent in this report:

  • Adjustment period: “It took a few days to find that comfortable zone with the chair — less than one week. Found the right height and tilt to make it comfortable.”
  • Energy boost: “In my regular chair, I felt sluggish and drowsy mid-way through the day. With this Anda gaming chair, I didn’t get that tired feeling. I am able to leap to my feet a lot quicker when I leave my office.”
  • Physical benefits: “Before using this chair, I was always sliding in my chair, poor lumbar support, and my feet would actually start to feel sore. The Dark Wizard helps me sit more in an upright position. I also used to suffer from occasional sciatica. But after using this chair for a few weeks, I did not notice any sciatic pains.”

To learn more, check out this feature:

Office worker case study: Dark Wizard gaming chair

Consequences of a flattened lumbar curve

Tilting your hips forward while sitting flattens out the lumbar curve. That degrades wellness with chronic back pain, severe headaches, and perpetual fatigue.

Health issues caused by poor sitting habits

The lumbar area is made up of five vertebrae in the lower spine between the buttocks and ribs. A healthy lumbar area naturally curves in towards the belly. Sitting partially flattens that curve. Sitting with a slouch almost fully flattens the curve.

Good versus bad sitting posture
Poor sitting posture places excess strain on the lumbar discs.

Tight hip flexors elongate and weaken the gluteal muscles (buttocks). Gluteal muscles are the primary muscle that balances the hips above the legs. When these become weak, helper muscles have to take over. This causes a cascade of physical misalignments.

Unsupported sitting problems
Sitting without ergonomic support inevitably leads to slouching.

This is likely a factor causing 85% of men and 75% of women to suffer from anterior pelvic tilt. Short hip flexors force the front of the pelvis to rotate forward. Concurrently, short flexors push the back of the pelvis upwards.

Anterior pelvic tilt
Most American adults suffer from anterior pelvic tilt caused by poor sitting habits.

The result is ugly. Your distorted body will suffer weak stomach muscles, lower body tightness, slumped shoulders, and worse. Unless you change your habits, prepare for a painful downward slope into the life of a hunchback.

Degrading posture warning

In this alignment, expect chronic stiff pain that makes walking difficult and running or kicking almost impossible.

Concluding points

Ergonomic chairs provide the tools to help users maintain a neutral sitting position. If your new gaming chair (or any other ergo chair) hurts your back, how you use it might be the problem.

Sloppy versus healthy sitting in a gaming chair
If you don’t maintain a neutral position in a gaming chair, it will cause more harm than help.

The gist is to plant your feet and push support into your lumbar area. That combination provides power and alignment to help the upper body stay straight.

Neutral sitting basics in a gaming chair

Here’s a summary of user advice specific to gaming chairs:

  1. Adopt a neutral sitting posture with feet planted firmly on the floor.
  2. Adjust the lumbar and armrests to provide optimal support for your needs.
  3. Adjust the backrest recline to your needs. Generally, recline to between 100-110 degrees for working of FPS gaming. Reclining deeper to around 120 degrees is ideal for watching movies, playing RPGs, and casual web browsing.
  4. Avoid sitting in a fixed position for longer than 15 minutes. Easy movement options include adjusting the backrest recline or using the chair’s rocking function.
  5. Stand up from your chair and take a walking break every 30 minutes.

For a detailed walkthrough of each step, check out our illustrated guide:

Gaming chair ergonomic user guide

Every ergo chair prioritizes neutral sitting

Absolutely not. As mentioned throughout this article, all ergonomic chairs with baseline features have the same purpose. That is to support the user in maintaining variations of a neutral posture while sitting. No matter what type of ergonomic chair you use, a neutral posture should be your default.

Neutral sitting examples in various ergonomic chairs

This article uses ergonomic science to define essential ergonomic chair features. On ChairsFX, there are four types that meet the criteria:

  1. High-end ergo task chairs: Herman Miller and Steelcase make some of the best high-end ergonomic chairs in the world. These models support neutral sitting with several advanced ergonomic features. Check out our review of the best high-end ergo chairs for a comparison of the best ($600-$1500).
  2. Mid-range ergonomic task chairs: these are stripped-down versions of the high-end models. They work in a similar manner, minus flashy synchro-tilt functionality. The best models in this grouping cost between $250 to $600.
  3. Ergonomic gaming chairs: the best high-end gaming chairs cost between $400 and $550. These models offer less complexity than high-end ergo chairs but deliver comparable results in a gamer-friendly style. Why pay $1500 when a $400 esports gaming chair supports neutral sitting just as well? Among all ergonomic options, gaming chairs (in my opinion) offer the best value for money.
  4. Cheap ergo or gaming chairs: a flood of cheap gaming and ergonomic office chairs under $250 are entering the market. Most offer impressive features on paper, with unreliable durability. In most cases, both gaming and office variants under $250 should only last for around one year.

Conclusion

If shopping for an ergonomic chair, gaming chairs are one of four viable options to consider. No matter which type you choose, the chair’s primary function will be to support a neutral posture while you sit.

Neutral posture sitting examples
L-R: high end $1500 ergo chair; mid-range $500 chair; $450 gaming chair; sub-$250 ergo office chair.

If your new chair hurts your back, pay heed to the lumbar support. If it isn’t prominent, adjust the depth.

Sitting in a Titan gaming chair
Tucking your hips deep into the seat pan will ensure contact with your lumbar support.

It’s also a good idea to tuck your hips as deep as possible into the seat pan as you sit. That will ensure healthy contact with your lumbar support, which then supports a neutral position.

Gaming chair ergonomic user guide
Check out our Gaming Chair User guide to master the art of neutral sitting over long periods.

Learn all the steps for healthy sitting in this step-by-step illustrated guide:

Ultimate guide to using a gaming chair

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