Computer Ergonomics Tips for Desk Workers
My journey to becoming a computer workstation ergonomic expert began about 2002, when my Occupational Therapy practice shifted from pediatrics to clients with hand and upper extremity complaints. This was compliments of the Air Force, meaning they moved me! I realized right away that the overwhelming majority of my clients were desk workers. I also realized right away that ergonomics was always an issue.
I taught a 2-hour computer ergonomics class for my clients 1 to 2 times a month. Because most clients want relief as soon as possible, I developed a list of quick tips to get clients on the way to pain free desk work. I have expanded these strategies from the original bare bones bullet format, but they are still general suggestions. The complete rationale and benefits behind the strategies will take multiple hubs! These strategies are highly effective in relieving an array of hand, arm, neck and back pain.
These strategies are also highly effective in treatment and relief of presumptive carpal tunnel syndrome (Yes I am suggesting it’s not CTS. And “nerve” tests don’t impress me much. But another day another hub.). I have a keen knack for pain related to desk work, having spent long hours at a desk myself. There are few symptoms that clients have described to me that I have not experienced myself.
Tips are grouped into recommendations related to head position and monitor height, arm position and upper chest posture, and chair height and leg position. Additional strategies are discussed for stretches and taking breaks, and perhaps surprisingly, sleep positions.
The Pain of Desk Work
Do you have pain that you believe to be related to working at a desk?
Laptop Docking Station
Head Position and Monitor Height
Monitor Height: When working at a computer, your gaze should be hitting the top 1/3 of the monitor screen, with your head straight and level.
Head Position: Minimize time spent looking down, such as reading or writing on a desk surface or using a laptop. This is a HUGE issue, the root of pain and other symptoms for so many clients. Take frequent 30 second breaks to bring your head back to a neutral position, like balancing a book on your head.
Glasses: If you wear bifocals, when looking at your computer monitor, make sure you do not have your head tipped back to look through the reading portion of the glasses. Remember you want your head neutral. Ask your eye care provider for “computer glasses” or have full frame reading glasses.
Ergonomic Posture- Upper Chest and Arm Position
Improve Your Posture: Push your shoulders back. Try to line up your shoulders with your ear holes. Try to remember to do this in progressively more and more of your daily activities. Ergonomic posture is not new, your mama told you this right?
Arm Position: When at a computer, elbows should be down by your sides, not forward of your shoulders. Elbows should be slightly opened up from 90 degrees, with wrists lower than elbows. Minimize bending the elbows 90 degrees or more, like propping your head on your hand. Elbow flexion takes the slack out of the ulnar nerve, stressing and irritating the nerve.
Mouse: Move your mouse with shoulder movement, not wrist movement. This is a key strategy in avoiding “tennis elbow” (or mouser’s elbow?).
Chair Height and Leg Position
Chair: If you sit for prolonged periods of time, it is especially important to optimize your relationship with your posture and your chair. Your leg position should be 90/90/90, meaning 90 degree angles of your ankles, knees and hips. Your knees should be even with your hips. Adjust your chair, or put books under your feet so that your thigh is parallel to the floor. This minimizes strain on the spine.
It Just Needs to be Adjustable
A Chair Does Not Need to Be Expensive
How many hours a day do you spend at a desk, including work and home?
Chest Opener Stretch
Breaks and Stretches
Breaks: Take frequent 30 to 60 second micro breaks throughout the day to move your body. This alone has made a significant impact for clients. Get up out of your chair and walk a few steps. You can still be “on the job” in your head! Next break move your hands. Later your arms. Then your ankles. Get the picture?
Stretches: We spend most of our waking hours with our arms forward, doing something. This results in tight chest muscles, which restrict the blood vessels and nerves in the upper chest, causing or contributing to an array of upper extremity symptoms. Perform chest opener stretches, such as pinching your shoulder blades together.
Upper Body: Most of us claim to be side sleepers, but this is not strictly true. We tend to be rolled down toward the bed. If side sleeping, sleep with your shoulders “stacked” and top arm supported on pillows or on your side. Avoid “closing down” the upper chest which restricts the blood vessels in the upper chest. If you sleep flat on your back, great!
Arms: Minimize bending the elbow 90 degrees or more while sleeping, like with your hands at your face. Remember this stresses the ulnar nerve. An added bonus: If you follow this rule, you won’t have your hand under your head, so you won’t cut off circulation in your hand.
Now you have my emergency quick start computer ergonomics strategies, along with a few other tips, to help you continue slaving over your desk and computer. These strategies are tried and true for decreasing and often eliminating pain in the neck, back, arms and hands. If it feels impossible, then pick one or two tips to prioritize. I’d probably pick the ones that my gut told me were the most likely culprits. If I were really overwhelmed, I’d pick the ones that would seem to be the easiest to change first. Good luck!
Talk to Your Health Care Provider
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Consult your doctor. Many therapists are experts in ergonomics. Consider asking for an occupational therapy or physical therapy consult.