Neck and shoulder pain is one of the most prevalent complaints in the office work environment. Neck and shoulder pain can be caused by a number of factors: illness, injury, stress, or the way you slept. Commonly though, neck and shoulder pain is caused by working at the computer. A tell-tale sign for me that computer work may be the culprit is when people place their hands on the area where the neck meets the top of the shoulder and say “it hurts here”.
Luckily this is usually a very easy fix. Most people use their keyboards on the desk surface. This requires them to lift up both arms at the shoulder when typing, also known as “hunching”. Some people hunch a lot and other people only hunch their shoulders up a tiny bit. But any movement up, no matter how small, will activate the trapezius muscle. And prolonged use of this muscle will provoke that tell-tale pain. To deactivate the trapezius muscle completely, the upper arms must hang loosely from the shoulder joint with no movement. Elbows are then bent at 90 degrees for optimal keyboard and mouse height. So unless you have an adjustable desk that will bring your keyboard and mouse to this ideal height, you will require a keyboard and mouse tray. Keyboard and mouse trays are much better designed nowadays and are very comfortable to use. Here are some features to look for:
- Complete height adjustability so you can achieve that exact height;
- Negative tilt adjustability so that you can keep your wrists straight;
- Slim in height so the keyboard tray clears your legs easily;
- Keyboard and mouse all on one tray (extra mouse trays off the side tend to have rigid edges and are often higher in height);
- No knobs underneath the tray that will knock your knees.
Don’t forget your posture too – your shoulders need to be relaxed. To make sure that they are, try this exercise: hunch up your shoulders to your ears and then relax them completely while breathing out. You will be able tell whether you have been unconsciously hunching. Many people do this when they are stressed or on a deadline – it’s a “fight or flight” reaction. But to rid yourself of pain, shoulders need to be loose and unrestricted. Feeling good and pain-free is always the best way to meet that deadline.
Overuse can be defined as using muscles to the point of overload without adequate recovery. An example of a job where you could overwork your muscles, would be an office worker who spent all day on the computer, keyboarding and mousing; then came home at night and used the computer all night during their leisure time. Another example would be as an order picker and who spent their entire day lifting boxes 30 lb. and up every few minutes. Both of these workers are putting themselves at risk for overuse syndrome.
What happens is that the muscles work all day at one task, usually a task that has repetitive motion too. So the same muscle groups get more and more tired as the day goes on from the constant use. With some jobs your muscles may feel fatigued, but with other jobs you might not feel the fatigue even though it is happening (this is even more risky for overuse syndrome). If you really push your muscles during the day, rest and sleep time at night might not be enough for your muscles to fully recover for the next work day. So when you wake up in the morning, instead of your muscles being 100% rested, they may be only 95% rested. And if you continue on like this, losing 5% every day, the risk for injury increases considerably. Your muscles are just too tired and not recharged enough to avoid injury.
It is important to avoid overuse so you don’t end up with an injury. Some good rules to follow:
- Always take a full lunch break as well as morning and afternoon breaks if they are offered.
- Rest during your breaks and avoid using the muscles you use at work – no walking if you are an order picker, no computer work if you are an office worker.
- If possible, 5 min breaks every hour are better than 15 min morning and afternoon breaks.
- Avoid overtime hours. Work no longer than 8 hours a day.
- Don’t tax your muscles at night. If you work on the computer during the day, avoid it at night. If you have a manual labor job, rest in the evening to allow your muscles to recover.
- Eat nutritious foods to allow your body to rebuild strong and healthy muscle tissue.
- Drink lots of water to keep your body hydrated and to allow waste products to be flushed out.
- Get a good nights’ sleep. This is essential for proper muscle recovery.
Remember that your body is not a machine – it will break down when pushed too hard. Work in moderation and listen to your body’s needs for rest. An injury is no fun for anyone.