HealthFebruary 05, 2020

Why good doctor posture matters

By: Brian Wu, MD, PhD

When you're going about your daily work, the importance of good doctor posture might be last thing on your mind, particularly if you're at the beginning of your medical career. But attending to it now is crucial to making sure your body is at peak health later. Here's how to protect your body — and your long-term professional prospects — by practicing good posture.

Why does posture matter for doctors?

Physicians, and surgeons in particular, frequently suffer from musculoskeletal (MSK) complaints. In one study published in Medical Archives, 80% of Saudi surgeons who were surveyed reported MSK manifestations as a result of performing surgery, with the back and neck most likely to have symptoms. Similar results were found in a review of 40 studies that appeared in the Annals of Medicine and Surgery: Out of 5,152 surgeons, 68% reported generalized pain. The back, neck and upper arms were the areas most frequently affected. Both papers found higher associations of pain with minimally invasive surgery versus open surgery.

These MSK complaints can have consequences beyond physical pain. The Medical Archives paper noted that in some cases, these symptoms forced surgeons into early retirement. Meanwhile, the Annals of Medicine and Surgery review found that some of the MSK problems resulted not only in surgeons needing an operation themselves, but also in having to take extended leaves of absence or retiring early. In short, if they go unchecked, these posture problems can have a significant and detrimental impact on your medical career.

Good doctor posture on the job

The good news is that deliberately practicing good posture can benefit your overall health. Harvard Health notes that holding your body the right way can help prevent pain, injury and other health issues that may arise as a result of your work.

According to Harvard, good posture involves the following.

  • When standing, keep your chin parallel to the floor, your shoulders even and your spine lying in its natural curves. Your arms should be at your sides with your elbows straight and even. Your hips and knees should be even, with your knees pointing straight ahead. Avoid shifting your weight unevenly from one foot to the other.
  • When sitting, keep your chin parallel to the floor, your shoulders, hips and knees even and your knees and feet pointing straight ahead.

That may sound easy enough, but physicians face unique challenges when it comes to good posture. Medical Archives notes that surgeons' work often requires them to adopt awkward positions for long periods of time and perform frequent repetitive motions, leading to MSK issues.

The authors of this study suggest that physicians should learn how to use ergonomics in the operating room to reduce the risk of MSK problems. And the Annals of Medicine and Surgery reports that surgeons using robotic approaches to surgery have fewer incidents of surgery-related MSK symptoms, noting that further development of this kind of surgical method might also lead to a reduction in risk.

There are steps you can take, however. Medline Plus offers the following general guidelines for improving your posture in the workplace.

  • Choose supportive, comfortable footwear.
  • Try to set work surfaces at a comfortable height.
  • Take frequent breaks, especially if you're sedentary for any length of time. Change positions often, take a short stroll and stretch gently to reduce the buildup of tension in your muscles.
  • Don't cross your legs when you're sitting down. Keep your feet on the floor. Relax your shoulders and hold your elbows close to your body. Your back, thighs and hips should be supported.

Improving Your Posture Outside of Work

Maintaining good posture doesn't end when the workday is over — it's important to keep these tips in mind while you're off-duty. To prevent the development of posture-related problems, try the following.

  • Be aware of your posture. While going about everyday activities, get in the habit of observing your posture and correcting it.
  • Engage in regular activity. While any kind of exercise is beneficial, disciplines such as yoga and tai chi may be particularly valuable for cultivating good posture. Exercises that strengthen the core muscles in your back and abdomen can also lead to better posture. Regular exercise might also help you keep off excess weight, which can cause postural problems since it can weaken stomach muscles and lead to back pain due to problems with the hips and spine.
  • Practice posture-improving exercises. The United Kingdom's National Health Service offers directions for how to perform poses like bridges and planks, as well as hip flexor stretches and back extension exercises, all of which may help improve the most common posture problems.

Remember that if you're experiencing worrying symptoms, you don't have to deal with them alone. Less than one-third of surgeons in the Annals of Medicine and Surgery review sought treatment for their MSK complaints, but with your career and quality of life on the line, it's wise to do what you would recommend to your patients: Seek the help of a professional. And if you haven't yet experienced symptoms, keep it that way by following these tips.

Brian Wu, MD, PhD
Lippincott Medicine
Lippincott is a leading international medical publisher of professional health information for practitioners, faculty, residents, students, and healthcare institutions with a full suite of essential medical products, from books and journals to digital solutions.