We all know that prolonged sitting is a recognized ergonomic risk for lower back pain (LBP). I get asked a lot if stability balls can prevent or heal lower back pain. Not quite sure what a stability ball is? For reference, a stability ball is usually quite large and bouncy. You would typically see them rolling around in physiotherapy clinics or gyms.
It’s interesting to note that although stability balls are quite popular in certain office environments there is actually a lack of quality evidence in support their use instead of a usual office chair. So, what I have done is found the 4 best scientific articles and then summarized each below to assist you in making your decision.
So, which is better for back health – a stability ball or office chair?
Article 1: Stability ball versus office chair: comparison of muscle activation and lumbar spine posture during prolonged sitting.
This study evaluated the differences between sitting on a stability ball and an office chair by examining each participant’s lower back muscle activation. Stability ball marketers claim that their product reduces and prevents lower back pain (LBP) by increasing trunk muscle activity as users require a certain baseline of muscle contraction to remain stable when sitting. This increased muscle activity will theoretically increase core stability and strength overtime which the researchers hypothesize will be beneficial for reducing the prevalence of LBP. Research supports this claim in exercise programs BUT prolonged exposure in the office environment has historically been shown to increase reported incidence of pain.
In this study, it was found that participants sat with similar postures no matter if they sat on a regular office chair or on a stability ball. Researchers did not find any advantage in using a stability ball as an office chair; no postural or muscular activation differences were found between the two, however there was increased reported discomfort and potential safety issues (sitting on unstable surface) associated with the stability ball. These findings led the researchers to question the use of the stability ball in an office environment.
Article 2: Sitting on a chair or an exercise ball: various perspectives to guide decision making.
Past research has shown that many find it uncomfortable to sit on a stability ball all day. This study did not find any beneficial advantages for the user for sitting periods longer than 30 minutes. The researchers proposed that this is because sitting on a stability ball increases the soft tissue compression area to tissues not normally used during regular sitting. This may be the reason why there are so many comments that stability balls can be uncomfortable.
Article 3: Static and Dynamic postural loading during computer work in females: sitting on an office chair versus sitting on an exercise ball.
Prolonged sitting has always been associated with disc degeneration. Unsupported back postures (i.e.: sitting with no support from the backrest) has been shown to negatively affect back health, whereas back movement when sitting has been shown to improve back comfort. There is a predicament with stability balls: stability balls increase motion in the back (thought to be a good thing), but the absence of back and arm supports could potentially lead to discomfort in the back and upper extremities over time. Not surprisingly, this study found negative back health outcomes when sitting on an stability ball. The researchers concluded that as far as the low back is concerned, negative effects outweigh the positive effects of using a stability ball in an office setting.
Article 4: The gym ball as a chair for the back pain patient: a two case report
Both patients in this report were suffering with low back pain and both improved when they began consistently using the stability ball. Evidence from the author’s clinic suggests that replacing the office chair with a stability ball can be helpful for some patients. This report lacked rigorous scientific evidence and its outcomes should be considered with that appropriate regard.
So the articles that I found point to the use that prolonged use of a stability ball can be uncomfortable for staff and increase their reporting of discomfort. Interesting right? So, what do you think? Does this post change what you think of using stability balls in the office?