In what seemed like the blink of an eye, our world changed, and many people that went into an office Monday through Friday were suddenly required to stay home—and work from home. A lot of people have found themselves working from a less than ideal workstation, from a laptop on the couch, the kitchen table, or trying to do everything possible from a phone. After about two weeks of the stay-at-home order, my office started to get an influx of calls regarding neck, back, and shoulder pain.
The problem with home workstations.
The biggest offender I see is laptops. Their smaller keyboard can lead to hand cramps and microtrauma in the wrist, finger, and forearms. They also have a smaller screen, so you may be leaning forward and straining to see the monitor. This creates microtrauma in the neck, shoulder, and upper back, which can be a chronic source of pain and what we call a repetitive use injury, or something that happens day in and day out. An example of this is sitting eight hours per day in front of a computer. This can create injury in the body slowly and will eventually create chronic pain and dysfunction in the muscles.
Secondly, not having a room in your house where a desktop or workstation is set up for your ergonomic needs can increase the risk of injury. It can be that people are working from areas that are not the ideal workspace, or it could be that the computer setup is not ideal. Take the kitchen table—if you have your laptop on it, your neck is going to move forward in front of your body when looking at the screen, creating incredible tension in the upper back, damage in the neck, and rounding in the shoulders. Believe it or not, this also can put a strain on the low back. Some people will also slump in the chair to see the computer screen, which creates a curve in the low back that over time will create microtrauma and injury.
Studies show that there are simple changes you can make that can have a big impact on your posture—and pain.
How to set up your workstation:
- Putting your computer on books or a stand to help with the height of your computer is a good, simple solution. I like books because you can increase a little at a time and see how your body adjusts to the changes. The research shows us that no perfect height exists, but you want to be looking straight ahead at your screen, not up and not down. It is about trying the modified workstation and seeing how your body feels. Does it decrease or increase the aches and pains?
- Make sure your arms are at a 90-degree angle so not reaching up to a kitchen table, for example. The best way to achieve this might be to have a keyboard separate from your laptop computer.
- Move and stretch just five minutes per day to make a big difference in your pain levels and tightness. Set a timer on your phone for every 45 minutes and get up and move so something called “creep” doesn’t set in. Creep is when you’re in an inappropriate posture for an extended period of time and muscle fatigue kicks in. This can lead to injury in some of the major postural muscle. When you stretch, move in the opposite motion from what you’ve been doing. In most office situations people are slumped forward, so extend backward to relieve the creep or musculoskeletal injury from setting in.
- Change the height of your office chair. The ideal chair is adjustable with height and also seatback. Electromyographic (EMG) studies have reported that a chair that is height adjustable and has an adjustable backrest and armrests can reduce the muscle activity of the neck, shoulder, and back and also decreases the intervertebral disc pressure. This means less pain, less muscle fatigue, and less injury.
The bottom line.
Where you work and your workstation setup have a profound impact on the health of your structural system. A few simple changes can prevent—or eliminate—pain.
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