It’s an all too common modern problem. Many people now work at desks looking at computer screens for prolonged periods of time. Technology has evolved so quickly that many of us now also work at home on laptops and I-Pads but unfortunately humans have not yet evolved to be able to withstand prolonged static postures. Maybe in the next ten thousand or so years we will but until then, here are a few tips to self-assess your workstation set-up (at work or home) and dodge a potential trip to the physio.
Your desk is usually the least flexible item so generally we work around it. A recessed keyboard can be useful if you have looked at all other avenues and still need the desk lowered.
Your chair should be a swivel type preferably without arms if the desk is low. Many chairs have removable arms nowadays so you can slide it under the desk and avoid having to lean forwards. An adjustable backrest is ideal so you can move it to find your spinal neutral posture. Everyone’s’ ideal posture is different (for example a pregnant woman may prefer minimal low lumbar support compared to someone who has had a lumbar disc prolapse in the past). The seat should be deep enough to support most of your thighs to within around 5cm of your knee crease. Adjust your seat height to suit your desk height – ensuring your forearms are parallel to the floor with wrists in a neutral position (not lifted up excessively). Hips should be angled at approximately 90-110 degrees with knees at 90 – 100 degrees.
Your monitor should be directly in front of you if the bulk of your time is spent looking at the screen. The top of the monitor should be approximately eye-height or slightly below. Those with bifocals may need a lower screen. Optimal distance from screen to eyes varies depending on each person’s visual needs but the general rule is 45-75cm.
Your feet should each be firmly placed on the floor so if your seat height has been raised, you may need a footstool to compensate.
Your mouse should be as close to the keyboard as possible to avoid an extended reach. Mouse operation should vary depending on the type of work you are doing and any existing shoulder or wrist problems your may have. If you have a shoulder problem then try planting your wrist to swivel your hand from side to side, if you have a wrist/forearm repetitive strain problem then try using your shoulder to move the mouse.
Your keyboard needs to be situated directly in front of you based on where the letters are. Wrist supports are handy if you type for prolonged periods but are really designed to be used for rest intervals, not for leaning on whilst typing.
Lighting is essential but too much or excessive screen glare can cause headaches and eye strain. Windows may need to be blocked at certain times of the day and try to identify any lights which are not ideally situated relative to your workstation.
Accessories can be useful to fill the gaps if you are unable to optimise your workstation with existing equipment. Examples are separate monitor screens if you use a laptop and find the screen is too low on the desk, a headset if your job requires prolonged periods of phone use, wrist rests and a footstool as described previously or a lumbar support for your chair.
Don’t forget to stand up and walk every hour and move/stretch whilst in your seat working every 10-15 minutes (for example, shrug your shoulders, squeeze your blades together, rotate your neck or look up at the ceiling)
Often small, inexpensive changes can make a significant difference so try these first. Many companies provide occupational health and safety officers or external health care providers (physiotherapists or occupational therapists) who are trained to adjust workstations for each individual.
If you are already being treated for a workplace related problem, ask a colleague to take a few shots of you sitting at your workstation and take these in to show your physio. I find this an invaluable and simple tool.
Finally don’t forget to engage in general exercise when you are away from your desk. Your joints, tendons and muscles will love you for it. There is good evidence to prove that general exercise (anything you enjoy) is a very effective way to treat or avoid spinal pain in particular. 150 -300 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise such as brisk walking or swimming a week is the current recommendation by the Department of Health. Factsheets for different age groups are available on the following link and are worth a look. http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/health-pubhlth-strateg-phys-act-guidelines (accessed 31 August 2014).
(Image curtesy of Photokanok at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)