Sitting at your desk doesn’t have to be a pain in the neck

Working at a desk is a common cause of back and neck pain. To alleviate this discomfort, redesign your workspace to encourage well-aligned posture.

By Jill M. Henderzahs-Mason P.T.

Do you feel creaky, achy and stiff by the end of the workday? Sitting most of the day is detrimental to your health, but other work-related factors can compromise your well-being, too.

Working at a desk is a common cause of back and neck pain, often because you accommodate to your workstation rather than the other way around. For instance, many people strain to see a computer monitor that is too far away, too low, too high, too small or too dim. This compromises good posture. The average human head weighs almost 12 pounds (5.4 kilograms) — the equivalent of a bowling ball! When your neck is bent to 45 degrees, your head exerts nearly 50 pounds (23 kilograms) of force on your neck. In addition to straining joints and muscles in your neck and shoulders, the pressure affects your breathing and mood.

To alleviate this stress, redesign your workspace to encourage well-aligned posture. There are many ways to improve the ergonomics — efficiency and comfort level — of a typical workstation. Start by answering these questions.

  • Is your monitor positioned so that you can see it well without straining?
    • Raise or lower the monitor or your chair so your eyes are level with the top of the screen. If you wear bifocals, you may need to lower the monitor another 1 to 2 inches.
    • Move the monitor closer or farther away so that you can easily read the screen.
    • Increase the font size you use.
    • If using a laptop, link to a larger monitor.
  • Are your mouse and keyboard positioned so that you don't have to reach up to use them?
    • Lower your desk height or raise your chair so that your forearms are parallel to the floor or pointed slightly downward and your wrists are not pointing either upward or downward.
  • Do you keep frequently used tools within close range to minimize reaching?
    • Keep your mouse nearby, and regularly change it from one side of your body to the other.
    • Use a headset if you talk on the phone frequently.
    • Find shortcut keys you can use while typing.
    • Use a document holder so that you don't have to look down frequently.
  • Does your chair allow you to maintain the normal curves in your spine, such as the curve in your low back?
    • Raise or lower your chair so that you're not sitting straight up at a 90-degree angle, but rather with a slightly reclined posture of 100 to 110 degrees.
  • When you're seated, do your feet touch the ground?
    • Consider using a stool if you've elevated your chair and your feet no longer reach the ground.
    • Maintain a couple of inches between the back of your knees and the chair.
  • If your chair has armrests, do they allow your shoulders to relax?
    • Consider lowering or getting rid of the armrests so that your neck and shoulders can relax downward.

Experiments

Try these suggestions for creating a work environment that supports good health and posture.

  1. Set a timer and get up every 30 minutes. Take a walking meeting, stand or exercise during a conference call, or hand-deliver a message when you would normally email it.
  2. Ask a colleague to take a picture of you at your workstation and check to see if it supports well-aligned posture (eyes looking straight, neck not bent, forearms parallel to the floor, low back in its natural curve). If not, talk to your human resources contact for help if needed.
  3. Follow the 20/20/20 rule. Every 20 minutes, give your eyes a 20-second break by focusing on something at least 20 feet away.
  4. Create a standing workstation!
Dec. 17, 2016 See more In-depth