There’s really no way around it—much of our work must be done in a stationary setting. Hours are clocked behind our desks or even our dining tables, which became makeshift workspaces for many during the COVID-19 pandemic.
No matter where you are setting up shop, anytime you confine your body to a position for a prolonged period of time, it’s bound to get cranky sooner or later. One of the most common complaints of my stationary workplace patients is that of a sore neck and/or lower back. Over time, those initial, isolated pain areas begin to take up more real estate, moving into their shoulders/upper back, buttocks/hips, and sadly, sometimes even traveling down their arm or leg.
In order to steer clear of this workspace-generated pain-in-the-_____ (fill in the blank), you’d be wise to do a “body check” to assure the best possible alignment for your spine and extremities—if you plan on continuing to work as you must for hours on end!
DESKTOP MONITOR MAKEOVERS
First, make sure your desktop monitor is well-placed. The height of the screen should allow you to look straight forward without having to tip your head up or tilt it down in order read comfortably. If your monitor is a fixed height, try adding a book under its base to raise it up, or lower your chair if you find you are looking down at the screen. Remember to scroll down regularly to keep the words you are typing or reading directly in front of your eyes.
Next, don’t make the mistake of craning your head and neck forward in order to bring the words into focus. Slide the monitor towards you and tuck your chair in a bit more if you have the room. These adjustments will keep your head lined up over your shoulders—where it’s the happiest! If the words you’re reading are just too small, make use of the “increase font size” feature for easier viewing, or upgrade your reading glasses.
Finally, make sure your arms are supported as you type and mouse. This can be done by using a chair with arm rests, moving the keyboard and/or mouse down onto the pullout shelf in your computer desk, or by resting your forearms on the edge of your desk while using the keyboard/mouse.
LAPTOPS AREN’T FOR LAPS
Yeah, yeah, I know they are called laptops, but this was never a good idea ergonomically. I, for one, was never asked to professionally weigh in on this idea, but as a physical therapist with 30+ years of experience treating headaches, neck and back pain, and their radiating symptoms, I am here to say, STOP IT! Take that laptop off your lap and put it up on a supportive surface, preferably on top of a raised laptop base, which will lift it closer to your face so you don’t have to look down at the screen.
BE AWARE OF YOUR CHAIR
I could have titled this section, “The Attack of the Killer Chair,” because a poorly fitted chair can be the death of your wellbeing! Here are some guiding principles:
1. Your chair height should allow for full contact of your feet on the floor without your knees being higher than your hips. Too high or too low can create disc problems in your low back.
2. Your low back should be held passively in a bit of extension (lordosis). This is achieved by a built-in lumbar support or added lumbar cushion—provided your back typically rests against the back of your chair. If it does not, this can be achieved by sitting on a slanted foam wedge or by having a chair whose seat base is able to be tipped forward, again ensuring your knees are slightly lower than your hips.
3. The back of your chair should be fairly rigid/upright. Leaning way back in your chair while typing on your keyboard or reading on your desk will cause your neck to glide forward over your breastbone, rather than remaining squarely over your shoulders. Over time, this can create disc bulging or nerve impingement in your neck.
These same sitting principles apply to your automobile. Your seat base (if possible) should be in a downward sloped position, your seat back shouldn’t be super reclined, and add in a lumbar support if your car seat does not have an adequate one that keeps your low back in a bit of an arch.
Attention to the above advice will go a long way to protect the joints, muscles, and discs in your neck and lower back—keeping them from becoming a royal pain!