Here’s how to avoid pain while working at a desk

Dear Mayo Clinic, I have been working from home for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. My job requires me to be on a computer most of the day, and over the past few months I have noticed more frequent headaches and pain in my lower back and sometimes neck. Could my workspace be contributing to my pain? If so, how can I fix it?

Answer: The number of people working from home has increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. With more and more people working from home, more people have reported neck and back pain.
Sitting and working at a desk – perhaps a makeshift desk – is one of the most common causes of this type of pain. Taking the time to review and redesign your workspace can ease the discomfort, whether you’re working at home or in an office.

First, get to know your computer or your workstation. Often times, I find that people are trying to adapt to technology rather than the other way around. For example, many people struggle to see a computer screen that is too far away, too low, too high, too small, or too dark. This compromises good posture.

The average human head weighs almost 12 pounds, the equivalent of a bowling ball. When your neck is bent at 45 degrees, your head exerts almost 50 pounds of force on your neck. In addition to straining the joints and muscles in your neck and shoulders, the pressure affects your breathing and mood.

To alleviate this stress, rearrange your workspace to encourage a well-aligned posture. You can improve the ergonomics – efficiency and comfort level – of a typical workstation in several ways.

Start by answering these questions.

Q: Is your monitor positioned so that you can see it well without straining?

Consider these tips:
• Raise or lower the monitor or chair so that your eyes are level with the top of the screen. If you wear bifocals, you may need to lower the monitor an additional 1-2 inches.

• Move the monitor closer or farther away so that you can easily read the screen.

• Increase the size of the font you are using.

• If you are using a laptop, connect to a larger monitor.

Q: Are your mouse and keyboard positioned so that you don’t have to stand up to use them?

Lower your desk height or raise your chair so that your forearms are parallel to the floor or slightly pointed down and your wrists are not pointing up or down.

Q: Do you keep frequently used tools handy to minimize reach?

Consider these tips:

• Keep your mouse close and change it regularly 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 briefcase so you don’t have to look down frequently.

Q: Does your chair allow you to maintain the normal curves of your spine, such as the curve of your lower back?

Raise your chair so that you do not sit straight at a 90 degree angle, but rather with a 115 to 120 degree angle between the torso and thighs.

Q: When you are seated, do your feet touch the ground?

Consider using a stool if you’ve raised your chair and your feet are no longer reaching the floor. Also, keep a few inches between the back of your knees and the chair.

Q: 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 down.

Check your posture

Have someone take a picture of you at your workstation and check to see if you are in a properly aligned posture, which means:

• Your eyes look straight.

• Your neck is not bent.

• Your forearms are parallel to the floor.

• Your lower back is in its natural curve.

It can provide another perspective to help you make adjustments.

Also speak to your employer to see if additional items can be provided to assist you, if needed, such as a standing workstation or a sit-stand desk. This latter configuration allows you to raise and lower the height of your computer and peripherals.

Also consider these best practices for promoting good health and posture:
• Set a timer and get up every 30 minutes. Take a walk to a meeting, stand or exercise during a conference call, or hand deliver a message when you would normally email it.

• Follow the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes, give your eyes a 20-second break, focusing on something at least 20 feet away.

Paying attention to healthy work habits can go a long way in reducing neck and back pain, as well as creating a more positive work experience.

– Jill Henderzahs-Mason, PT, DPT, Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program, Rochester, Minn.

About Marion Alexander

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