We humans are just not designed to sit for 6-8 hours a day, in a chair, at a desk, looking at a computer monitor. We really aren’t designed to sit for very long at all without changing position, getting up, and moving.
The skeletal system, muscles, ligaments, and tendons work their best when they are “greased” by movement. Years of inactivity by placing ourselves at desks and behind computer monitors with only two 15 minute and one 30 – 60 minute break during the day can cause our bodies to get “rusty” and “creaky” and sometimes even cause pain and injury. So what is the answer to preventing carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, lower back pain, and upper back and shoulder stiffness, as well as other musculoskeletal disorders? A properly set up work station for each individual and lots of movement in your body each day. This article will give you a quick guide on setting up your workstation to fit you as an individual and a few stretches for the muscles. If the suggestions here do not work for you or you are still experiencing discomfort, a professional assessment by an ergonomist may be in order for you. If you are experiencing pain, you may need to see a doctor.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no perfect posture for sitting at a desk or computer workstation. If you sit in the “perfect posture” for too long, you will get stiff and may begin to hurt. The “perfect posture” is changing your position often during the day to give muscles the opportunity to move, stretch, and increase blood flow. This doesn’t mean you have to take a walk every hour, but it does mean you need to move some. Avoiding or limiting damaging postures is important, too. Body-stressing postures include slouching your shoulders, jutting your chin out toward the monitor, and holding the telephone between your ear and shoulder for long periods of time. Strive to keep your body in neutral positions by keeping your bones and joints aligned and not cramping or straining muscles. You can make quite a few mini movements while sitting in your chair. You can sit back on your chair (traditional good posture) with lower back supported, or you can sit at the front, middle, or either side of your chair for short periods of time. Move around on that seat a bit!
Although we want to move more during the day, it is important not to place items you reach for often too far away from where you sit. This may aggravate strained muscles or require you to overstretch to reach. Keep documents and desk tools close and convenient to you if you reach for them often.
Now let’s look at your workstation.
Chairs come first when evaluating and adjusting a workstation. The height of the seat pan, the area that is sat upon, should position you so that your feet rest flat on the floor. Women who wear different shoes each day should learn how to adjust the seat height to accommodate the different height of their heels. While the feet are resting on the floor, the hips should be level or just a bit higher than the knees, but not too much higher. When the hips are too high above the knee, you may feel as if you are sliding forward, and this will put undue stress on the thighs, knees, and feet as they try to hold you in the chair.
The seat pan should be large enough accommodate the worker and support the underside of the thighs with 1-3 fingers width or more between the front of the seat and the back of the knees. Too much distance between the seat pan and the back of the thighs causes strain on the thighs. A seat that is a bit too big is better than one that is too small, but of course, a good fit is always much more comfortable. And don’t forget, you want the room to move around on your seat pan.
The desk height can affect a worker’s upper and lower back, shoulders, neck, forearms, and wrists. If it is too high, it may cause the worker to scrunch the shoulders toward the ears, push the chin and neck forward, and stress the upper body. Adjustable desks are preferable as they can be raised or lowered, but a non-adjustable desk may require adjustments in the chair height. Many modular cubicle systems are very adjustable. If the chair must be raised so the feet no longer stay flat on the floor, a foot rest should be provided so that the feet are supported. To prevent the scrunch effect of a desk that is too high, the elbows should be parallel or almost parallel to the floor. The angle may be a bit wider depending on the desk and keyboard height. Ideally, the forearms will be horizontal with the floor allowing a straight line from elbow to knuckles. The desk may be a bit lower or a bit higher as long as the wrists are not bent upward when using a keyboard.
Desks that are too low may cause pressure on the tops of the thighs and bruise knees. Desk risers can be purchased from an office furniture supplier to raise non-adjustable desks.
Be sure to adjust the desk height after you have adjusted your chair height to ensure there is enough space under the desk to accommodate your thighs and knees. The proper height will allow 1-2 inches or more from the top of your thighs to the underside of the desk.
The keyboard has traditionally been placed as close to the edge of the desk as possible, but it can be pushed away so the forearms can rest on the desk. When resting the forearms on the desk in front of the keyboard, ensure that the shoulders are not scrunched up toward the ears, the wrists are kept in a neutral position, and the elbows are resting on nothing sharp or hard.
The keyboard should allow a straight line from the crease of the elbow, along the top of the forearms, to the knuckles. The knuckles should be at equal height or a bit lower than the wrist. Lowering the front of the keyboard so the knuckles are ¼-1” lower than the wrist may provide relief for those with wrist discomfort. A keyboard tray that can be tipped forward a few degrees makes the adjustment much easier. The legs on the back of the keyboard may cause a stressful angle in the wrist by raising the knuckle height above the wrist. Just because they are there does not mean they should be used! Keep neutral angles/positions from elbows to wrists to knuckles.
Typical recommendations for distance your monitor should be from your body are arm length or 18-24 inches. The best position is as far away as possible while you can still focus comfortably on the screen. Having the monitor farther away than typically recommended allows more relaxation of the eye muscles and broadens the field of vision. We tend to get tunnel vision while working on a computer. Again, movement is important here. Develop a habit of looking away from the monitor every few minutes. Focus on something far away to allow your eye muscles to stretch and relax. Remember there are muscles around the eyes that need to be “greased” too!
Ideal monitor height can be different for each person. Glasses, bifocals, or trifocals can affect monitor height greatly. The key to monitor height is easily seeing the monitor while keeping the neck in a neutral position and the head level. Bifocals or trifocals can cause tipping the top of the head back, compressing the back of the neck. Set the height of the monitor so that the field of vision allows a neutral neck position. For some, this will be much lower due to the use of bifocals or trifocals. Practice moving just your eyes up and down, without straining the eyes, rather than the entire head when looking at the screen.
Sometimes the discomfort an employee is experiencing is due to poor posture and not the workstation. Upper back, neck, and shoulder stiffness may be due to continually allowing the shoulders to roll forward and/or scrunch up toward the ears. It is more often seen in women, but men can also experience this for the same reason. A quick and easy way to remedy this position is to roll the shoulders forward and up, then roll them back, squeezing the shoulder blades together and allowing them to fall down the back. Slide your ears back and you are in good alignment for the head, neck, and shoulders. Do this slowly a few times and feel the muscles stretch; then relax as your shoulders move into the proper position. A quick squeezing of shoulder blades together will also realign the upper body. Repeat often throughout the day to develop a habit of the shoulders remaining in the proper position. The Mayo Clinic has online video clips of desk stretches that are great to do several times a day.
Another suggestion to get the muscles moving includes printing to a different printer that requires you to walk further to retrieve documents. Print and retrieve documents one at a time rather than all at once. Stand up when talking on the phone. Set a timer on the computer to remind you to stretch several times a day. Go for a walk during breaks or at lunch. Setting up our workstations is very important, but it is also important to move our muscles often during the day even if they are mini movements.
Every body is different and readjustments to the suggestions above are expected. Place your workstation equipment as suggested and then make small adjustments until you find your ideal workstation. Remember to place the equipment so your body remains in neutral positions. If an adjustment doesn’t work, change it. Pain is a signal that something is wrong. If you experience pain due to your workstation and cannot resolve the discomfort, an evaluation of your workstation by a professional ergonomist may be needed.