Most people spend a good amount of time at a computer or work desk each day. It doesn’t take long, therefore, for the body to adopt a poor work posture, which can cause pain and muscle tightness.
“Poor posture at a work desk is one of the major contributing factors to pain,” says Kelly Berry, manager of outpatient rehab at St. John Medical Center and a certified ergonomic assessment specialist. “Poor posture at a desk usually includes pushing the head and neck forward, which puts pressure on neck disks and the muscles of the upper back. This sustained poor posture also causes the lower back to round, affecting the disks of the lower back.
“In assuming this posture, we are asking our spine and back muscles to do something they are not supposed to do: to contract and hold for long periods of time, which causes them to get overused and overworked. In time, this causes pain.”
Berry finds that, as a result of poor work posture, individuals usually experience headaches or pain in their neck, shoulders and upper back. However, in some cases, the pain spreads to the lower back and includes numbness and tingling in the arms and legs.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) offers guidelines to creating a safe and comfortable workstation.
It recommends that the top of the computer monitor be at or just below eye level with adequate room for the keyboard and mouse. The head and neck should be balanced and in line with the torso with relaxed shoulders. Elbows should sit close to the body and the wrists and hands in line with forearms. Feet should be flat on the floor. A proper chair should have a well-padded seat to support the thighs and hips and appropriate lumbar support for the lower back.
“When I visit an office, the most common things I find are that individuals sit too far from their desk, computer monitors and keyboards are sitting too high and chairs lack the proper support,” Berry says.
She recommends that workers get out of their chairs and stretch throughout the day to add to the blood flow in their body.
“With gravity, we tend to take the path of least resistance,” she says, “so we gradually get closer and closer to the monitor and hunch over more. Regularly getting up out of the chair is helpful because when we sit back down, we go back to a more neutral sitting position.” Berry tells her patients to set an alarm for every 30 minutes in order to remind them to stretch and reset their posture.
According to OSHA, it is unhealthy to remain in the same posture or position for prolonged periods of time. It recommends making regular posture adjustments, such as slightly changing the chair or backrest.
“While it can be hard to get people to change their habits, it’s all about listening to the body,” says Berry.