The word, “Ergonomics” refers to the science of designing environments and products to match the individuals who use them. The term often pertains especially to the study of an individual’s efficacy in their working environment with the intention to provide optimum comfort, while avoiding stress and injury. Using the guidelines below, take ten minutes to set up your workspace ergonomically. These simple, inexpensive, and quick changes can drastically reduce the daily stress and strain placed on your body, by correcting dysfunctional patterns that can ultimately cause pain.
“Repetitive strain injuries account for 60% of US occupational injuries.” -US Bureau of Labor Statistics”
- Respect your spinal curves.
- As you first sit down, place your buttocks at the very back of your seat. This is a crucial first step because your pelvis ultimately positions your spine, determining whether or not your posture will work for or against you. Now bring your upper back into contact with the seat back. This brings your spine into alignment and maintains its natural curvature. Proper spinal curvature is so important because it 1) provides flexibility 2) cushions the joints between your vertebrae 3) acts as a shock absorber and 4) distributes weight evenly from your upper body. When your spine is stacked evenly upon itself, it naturally forms three primary curvatures that stabilize opposing muscle groups so that one specific muscle group doesn’t have to work overtime to keep you upright.
- A pelvis that is tipped backward/ tucked under you promotes rounded posture (think banana spine). If tipped too far forward, your low back will be over-arched. When in the correct position your spinal curves will cushion and distribute weight evenly, and you should feel relatively comfortable in a seated position.
- Your chest should be open and shoulders relaxed with your head balanced over your spine. You should be able to achieve this position by rolling your shoulders backward and tucking your chin so that your ears are directly over your shoulders (not in front). You should never sit bent so far forward that you can hold your head up with your hands. That’s your neck’s job!
- When seated, knees should be level with, or slightly lower than, your hips. That means that there should be a 90-100 degree angle bend at the knees. Your feet should rest on the floor or an inclined footrest (no dangling) to achieve this optimal angle. This positioning is important because if your feet are too high, your back will naturally curve further into a “C” or banana shape. If your feet don’t touch the floor, there may be too much compression to the back of your knees and thighs causing nerve and blood flow to be compromised, which can lead to pain and tingling mimicking sciatica.
- Your monitor should be directly in front of you, easily viewable, and positioned so that your head doesn’t have to crane forward or turn to one side to view it. The eyes lead the body so when working at a desk or looking down at our phones we tend to create our own discomfort without even knowing it. You should be able to look to the top and bottom of the monitor using just your eyes and without moving your head. To achieve this, position your monitor so that when sitting up straight your eyes are directly across from the top 1/3 of the screen. You can also set your computer lower so that your eyes are looking slightly downward at a screen tilted slightly upwards. Getting this positioning right is very helpful in preventing strain to your body since the body automatically positions the head and eyes for visual tasks, even if this causes contortions elsewhere.
- The monitor should be positioned about 24 inches away from your face, which is about one arms length. This keeps your eyes from straining and prevents leaning forward to view the screen, which can place strain on your neck and shoulders. Avoid glare by placing your monitor away from light sources.
- To analyze your posture while standing, take a look at yourself in a mirror from the side. Imagine a plumb line from the top of your head to your feet and aim to align your body with this line. Make sure your ear is directly in line with your shoulder, shoulder in line with your elbow, elbow in line with your hip bone, hip over your knee, and knee over your ankle as illustrated below. Once you see and feel your body in this position, you can continue to return to this position whenever you’re feeling tension in your back, neck, or shoulders which should feel relieving. And of course, wear comfortable shoes. For example, ladies who wear heals are forcing the low back into extension (an arched position) as their body compensates for the pelvis’ tilt. This same effect is seen in pregnant mothers with large bellies as well as in overweight individuals. Carrying more weight in front, as well as being pushed forward by high heeled shoes, causes your back to extend past its natural weight bearing position to compensate. This contracts and shortens the back muscles and can lead to strain up the spine and even into the shoulders and neck.
2. Move joints through mid-range, avoiding end-range movements.
- When bending forward from a standing position, over a table, desk, sink, etc., use the “hip hinge”. To do this, maintain a neutral spine (meaning standing up straight and balanced), widen your stance just a little, and create the fulcrum of flexion at the hip joint (meaning the area at the top of your thigh where your legs connect to your pelvis), not the low back. You will know you are doing it right if as you bend, your buttocks is pushed back behind you and the buttock muscles engage. This type of bend relieves stress off of the lumbar spine by maintaining the proper weight distributing curves. Watch any toddler bend down to pick up an object and you will observe a perfect hip hinge. It’s a shame we unlearn this movement pattern as we grow older. It would save many of us from a lot of low back pain.
- Another alternative is to bend at the knees instead of at the back. We’ve all heard this many times before and it is excellent advice because it follows the same concepts discussed above. Maintaining your spinal curves keeps stress to the joints and tissues at a minimum and forces you to use your buttock muscles, taking stress off the low back.
- Setup everything around you so that reaching with any part of your body to get work done is minimized. Keep materials and equipment close and evenly surrounding you.
- Use a document holder to raise and display whatever you’re working on. This keeps the neck from repetitively craning to look down at your work. Position it as close to your monitor as possible to avoid repetitive head turning.
- Your keyboard and mouse should be placed close enough to your body so that your upper arms hang comfortably (elbow joints directly under shoulder joints), and so that elbows are bent at a 90-100 degree angle. This will keep you from rounding your back and raising or lowering your chair or desktop will achieve this. (When setting up an ergonomic workspace this is often a good modification to start with, following all of the other rules after this correct position has been established.) Keep your wrists in line with your forearms. If you don’t have a wrist rest, get one, but do not use your wrist rest while typing.
Avoid maximally twisting your torso. Make sure you have a chair that swivels and turn your chair with your body. This is especially important to remember when reaching below your desk or to the ground for something you’ve dropped. Bending forward from a seated position increases the pressure placed on the discs of your spine, and rotation with concurrent compression can further compromise the integrity of your discs leading to herniation and other forms of spine and disc degeneration. Get off of your chair and squat if you have to reach something on the ground.
Use a headset. Headsets are standard for people who work in call centers where avoiding neck strain is paramount. Meanwhile, typical office workers are on the phone almost as much, but they’re usually seen pinching a handset between their ear and shoulder. If you spend a lot of time on the phone, and approximately more than an hour a day qualifies as a lot, you can’t afford not to use a headset. You can simply use your current cordless phone and plug a good headset into it.
Use keyboard shortcuts to avoid “over-mousing”. You can find these listed for a Mac vs. a PC using a simple Google search.
3. Perform coordinated movements instead of isolated movements.
Coordinated movements use more than one joint to perform a task. For example, when using a mouse, move your arm from the shoulder and elbow instead of relying on only your wrist. When lifting, bend your knees and flex your hips instead of only bending at the back (as discussed in detail above). Remember to keep objects you are lifting as close to your body as possible.
4. Final thoughts.
- Take frequent breaks. If you are glued to your desk for hours at a time, getting up and moving around for at least one minute every fifteen will make a significant difference in your health. This is called “microbreaking. At minimum, stand and take a lap around the office once/hour. This is absolutely necessary for joint health, blood flow, stress relief, and general brain stimulation. Take this time to consciously practice some deep breathing techniques or grab a glass of water for added benefits.
- Chair Considerations: A good ergonomic chair is a great addition to your workspace. However, keep in mind that having a comfortable chair encourages you to remain seated in it. The real hazard of modern life for most people is stillness itself, not the position in which you are still. Any position is bad in six-hour doses, no matter how ergonomically correct it is. Working in an uncomfortable chair may actually be of benefit because you will be less likely to sit in it for long stretches. However, this would also likely cause you to get less quality work done. So as long as you have to work, you should have a good ergonomic chair. Feel free to invest in this as it’s a lot cheaper than pain care. For a much more cost-effective intervention, you can try sitting on an exercise ball for part of the day which creates instability in a seated posture, encouraging movement while engaging postural reflexes that strengthen and stabilize the core and stimulate the brain (If you have balance issues try a ball in a sturdy base). Or you may consider a wobble cushion such as a Disco ‘O’ Sit or Sissel Balance Fit placed directly on your chair which would also contribute to the above responses. Alternating throughout the day, using a chair and wobble cushion, or medicine ball intermittently, would also be worthwhile because that provides variety. If these changes feel too overwhelming to make all at once, consider simply buying a lumbar roll or using a rolled up towel to support your low back while seated in your chair. The aim of this is to maintain proper spinal curvature by keeping your low back in the correctly arched and natural position. An example of a good lumbar roll can be found here.
- If you wear glasses or contacts, make sure that your prescription is up to date. An outdated prescription is one of the most common causes of tension headaches. An update can work small miracles. Sunglasses can also provide relief from eye strain due to glare.
- Finally, make sure you’re getting enough uninterrupted sleep each night. When you are tired, everything collapses including your posture.
“Unfortunately, ergonomics is usually interpreted unimaginatively, with the result that most people think that ergonomics is just about choosing office chairs and changing the tilt on your keyboard. Lots of things can be said about office chairs and the tilt of your keyboard — but it’s only the tip of the ergonomics iceberg. What discussions about ergonomics usually miss is that long work days in a chair are just a fundamentally bad idea — no matter how good your chair is. Ergonomics should not be focused on ways of making people more comfortable with a bad situation — almost a conspiracy against workers — but rather on improving the situation. Without a doubt, the single most problematic “design” feature is a lack of frequent and diverse activity throughout the working day.” ~Paul Ingraham (Painscience.com)
Good posture not only helps you to feel good, but you will look great too!
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