After a long day of work, have you ever experienced a loss of sensation in your fingertips, have a mild migraine or experienced uncomfortable lower back or neck pain?
If your answer is yes, you are not alone. Most people experience a variety of adverse bodily aches or pains after a long day at the office.
The most common conditions associated with poor workstation ergonomics include arthritis, neck/back pain, carpal tunnel and eye strain. There is a perfectly logical explanation for these undesirable symptoms.
How can you avoid injury?
Let’s start by analyzing how your workstation is currently set up.
Are your wrists bent or resting on the desk when you are typing or using the mouse?
Is your computer monitor slightly higher than your eye level? Is your monitor too close to your face?
Are you slouched in your chair? Are your armrests too low?
You might be asking, why do these little details matter so much? Spending eight hours a day sitting in a chair, manipulating a computer mouse and keyboard are not natural to our bodies.
Our ancestors were in constant motion, using their hands and feet to hunt and gather for their livelihoods. Humanity has never sat still in a chair using modern technology all day every day prior to when the past few generations began to.
Therefore, our bodies protest against these awkward positions and unnatural movements because they weren’t biomechanically created for this type of job. Improper positioning can put pressure on our nerves and blood vessels, strain our eyes and overwork our joints.
But there are ways to prevent or improve this discomfort by mimicking our body’s more natural and functional positions which protect and decrease stress on our nerves and joints.
Proper Body Positioning
Let’s look at how to properly position the key parts of your body.
Your head should be aligned with your trunk, not projected ahead of the rest of your body or tilted to the side. This position allows for your entire spine to remain in line and eliminates improper prolonged stationary positioning that can, over time, result in spinal deformities or impinged nerves.
Make sure that all working components of your workstation (mouse, keyboard, notebook, etc.) are placed directly in front of your body. This should be done in an attempt to avoid repetitive strain from awkward movements (twiting, reaching, bending, etc) while completing your regular work duties.
Take time to rearrange your desk to make these accommodations, add a new photo or decoration to your desktop while you are at it.
The top of your computer monitor screen should be positioned at eye level or slightly below eye level. When you are sitting normally (with good posture) in your office chair, you should have a direct view of the top of your monitor.
The general rule is to have your computer monitor at an arm’s length distance away from your body. Having your monitor placed in such a way will decrease the amount of strain on your eyes throughout the workday by allowing your eye muscles to remain in a more relaxed position (straight ahead) for the majority of the day.
This is an easy fix. Add a phonebook underneath your monitor structure to raise it if your monitor is not adjustable.
Good posture is easier said than done, but it truly does make a difference.
Check yourself routinely to make sure that you are sitting straight up in your chair with a good sitting posture. You want to avoid your back being arched backwards or leaned to either side. This can increase pressure on the vertebrae of the spine causing scoliosis, strain the muscles in your back or nerve problems.
Set an alarm on your phone or a colorful sticky note on your desktop to remind yourself to examine your posture routinely throughout the day.
You want a slight forward arch (arched towards your stomach or desk) in your lower back. This can be difficult to maintain, therefore, a lower back support can be placed to assist in sustaining this arch such as a small pillow or rolled up towel if your office chair does not provide a built in lumbar support.
Arms – Forearms, Elbows, Wrists
Your shoulders should be relaxed and not elevated or pushing forward. Let your elbows rest on the armrests of your office chair which should be at elbow level or slightly higher than elbow level.
Your elbows should rest close to your body, not way out to the sides, for the best result. Poor positioning of your shoulders can result in pinched nerves and strained neck/back muscles and is just downright uncomfortable.
Make sure that your forearms are parallel to the floor (horizontal). You don’t want them to be angled upward or downward. If this position is achieved properly, your elbows should be in a position halfway between extended and flexed (forming a 90 degree angle).
If you take only one tip from this article, be sure to take this one! Assure that your wrists are straightly aligned with the forearms (not bent).
There are so many options out there to support this position such as adapted mouses, mousepads, wrist rests to protect your wrists and the nerves and tendons that run across them.
Also, be sure that your wrists are not resting on the sharp edges of the desk. Poor position of the wrist is the most common cause of carpal tunnel, wrist pain, and even nerve pain in the fingertips caused by pressure on nerves and tension on tendons.
Legs – Hips, Knees, Feet
I can’t stress this next point enough! All body alignment starts at the hips. If your hips are misaligned, your whole body alignment will be off. Make sure that your chair is completely flat and not worn down so much that it is raised higher on one side than the other.
As difficult as this may be, refrain from crossing your legs. This automatically tilts your pelvis to one side, throwing off all body alignment.
Your chair height should allow for your thighs to rest parallel to the floor, your lower leg/calf to rest perpendicular to the floor (knees directly over your feet) and your feet to rest comfortably flat on the floor. Your office chair may need to be adjusted lower or higher to achieve these postures or a supportive cushion added to aid these accommodations.
I find myself morphing into these improper positions the longer I remain at my desk. We are all guilty. These positions mimic the more natural positions of our bodies, therefore decreasing the physical stress.
These simple changes can have a profound impact on your well-being and quality of life.
After initially setting up your workstation appropriately, make it a goal to routinely check your body placement throughout the work day.
Take regular movement breaks. Get up from your desk and walk to the lounge to top off your coffee or look out the window.
I have done several workstation evaluations and suggested modifications for family, friends and clients and each person has provided me feedback that the adjustments have improved their pain and discomfort significantly. I hope they do the same for you also!
Nicole Wiggins, OTR/L (Occupational Therapist)
Reference: OSHA Computer Workstations eTool