I work from home, and while I wouldn’t trade it for the world, sitting at a computer for endless hours can start to wear on my body.
For years I had gotten away with nothing more than a dull lower back ache.
This past summer, however, I began to develop some tingling and aching in my shoulders and hands. The pain even began to wake me up in the middle of the night. Not good at all!
As I began to look into how to remedy my problem, I learned that my work station set-up — which, truth be told, is located in my bed — was far from ideal. Luckily, with a few small adjustments, I was able to not only heal my hands and shoulders, but also decrease my daily backaches. Huge wins all around.
Now more than ever, many of us spend untold hours in front of computer screens. Tingling, numbness, dull aches and loss of strength are only a few symptoms of work-related stress injuries, according to Danielle Radin, a journalist and OSHA-certified ergonomics expert. If these symptoms are not addressed promptly, they tend to escalate (let me tell you: after 40, it all goes downhill!).
If you want to take some preventative measures or have been dealing with the issues mentioned above, here are some simple tips for ensuring your work environment is as ergonomically-friendly as possible:
1. Make Sure Your Computer Screen Is At Eye Level
Carol Green, a physical therapist from Charlotte, North Carolina who specializes in ergonomics, recommends your computer screen be placed at eye level, or about one inch below eye level (“gaze height”). This adjustment ensures you won’t need to crane your neck higher or lower to see your screen, as doing so repeatedly can put undue strain on your neck and shoulders.
You also want to make sure your computer screen is directly in front of you so you don’t need to twist to the side to see it. Experts recommend you keep the screen about an arm’s length away from your eyes and that your screen not be excessively bright. These tips help you avoid eye-strain. My optometrist recommends giving your eyes intermittent breaks (closing them for a few seconds, or looking away from the screen).
2. Keep Your Keyboard And Mouse At Elbow Height
Having an incorrectly placed keyboard and mouse is what caused my shoulder and hand pain. This situation is a common cause of carpal tunnel syndrome, which can become quite serious if left unaddressed.
Your keyboard and mouse should be placed at the same height as your elbows and forearms. While you type, your arms should essentially stay by your side, helping guarantee that your shoulders remain relaxed (no hunching forward!). Usually a slide-out keyboard tray will help you accomplish this, but you have to play around with your set-up to see what works best for you and your body.
If you have a laptop, it is nearly impossible to achieve a good ratio between keyboard/touchpad and computer screen height. Consider an external keyboard and/or mouse for your laptop. Place those on your lap or a desk; prop your laptop itself up on a few books or laptop stand so the screen is at eye level.
3. Sit In A 90-90-90 Position
If you haven’t noticed by now, creating an ergonomic workspace is all about making sure you maintain healthy posture and proper alignment. Green explained that, however you sit at your workstation, you should try to maintain a “90-90-90 degree sitting position.”
Essentially your head should be aligned directly on top of your shoulders, your shoulders on top of your hips, and your elbows, hips and knees at 90 degree angles as well. Green recommends your feet rest flat on the floor, or you use a foot rest if your feet do not reach the floor.
If you are using a traditional office chair, you should look at one with a 5 castors (wheels) base and padding in the back to help maintain your lower back curve. The seat of the chair is important too. It should have a “waterfall effect,” Green said, “curving gently away from the knees” to allow your legs optimal circulation.
4. Consider Ditching Your Desk Chair (Or Desk!) Altogether
You might have heard a lot of people suggest sitting on an exercise ball at your desk instead of a chair. The reasoning is that sitting this way forces you to maintain your posture, shift positions frequently, and strengthen your core and back muscles while you sit. I personally would not want to sit on an exercise ball for many hours in a row, but all experts agree that shifting positions and stretching out your body is essential for lessening your chances of strain. The option might be worth considering at least part-time.
You might also try a standing desk, which seem to be all the rage these days. The advantage of standing desks is you are not crunching your body into a chair all day. Keep in mind that you want to be sure to maintain good alignment, even at your standing desk. So make sure your computer screen is at eye level and your mouse and keyboard are at arm’s length. Standing desks are usually adjustable, so this setup should not be a problem.
5. Take Micro-Stretching Breaks Throughout Your Day
Whatever your setup looks like, it’s vital you don’t stay in one position all day long. Any repetitive movement (or lack of movement) can put strain on your body. Carol Green is a big proponent of taking “micro active breaks” throughout your day to stretch out your wrists and back. She recommends taking a 15-minute stretching break for every two hours of work.
What kind of stretching works best? Danielle Radin suggested moving your wrists in small circles about once an hour and also pushing your hands flat on your desk or other surface to stretch them out. For back care, you can stand with your feet about shoulder length apart and stretch forward toward the ground as much as feels comfortable. Twisting side to side is also helpful.
Some of these tips may seem tedious or annoying — or not applicable to you because you are already comfortable. But if you are feeling healthy, that’s all the more reason why you want to stay that way, and preventative measures like these can make a huge difference in the long-run. Misuse of your body can have a cumulative effect and hit you hard all of a sudden … I should know!
So take a moment to implement these changes today. Your body will thank you, I promise.
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