Free yourself from computer-related pain

Happy cheerful hipster man with a laptop sitting outdoors in nature, freedom and happiness concept

It’s a brand new year and now’s the time to finally do something about those aches and pains you’ve been having at the computer.  Maybe it’s just a bit of discomfort or the feeling that things are not set up right, or it’s actual pain that is just not getting better and in fact may be getting worse.  Maybe it’s at work on the computer, or at home on your laptop, or when you read on your tablet, or when you text a lot on your phone.  Regardless of which medium, there are many ways you can reduce or stop discomfort with a few little tweaks:

Check your neck position – Do you spend a lot of time looking down?  Adjust your monitor height so the height of the monitor is level with your eyes.  Get an external keyboard for your laptop so you can raise the laptop monitor to be level with your eyes.  Prop up your tablet on a stand or put a pillow under it so you don’t have to look down as much.  Use voice dictation for texting.

Check your elbow/forearm position – Do you lean on your desk or armrests a lot?  The contact stress can cause problems with blood and nerve supply so it’s best to limit leaning.  Laptops promote a lot of leaning on your forearms – also a good reason for getting an external keyboard and lowering it so your forearms are parallel to the ground with your elbows at 90 degrees of flexion.

Check your wrist position – There are three things to watch for:

  1. Your wrists should be straight – no bending up or down;
  2. Your wrists should be straight – no bending side to side when typing, try to float your hands over the keyboard;
  3. Your wrists should not touch any surfaces – no resting on the desk or wrist rest when typing.

Be sure to check your wrist position when holding your tablet too – it’s very easy to adopt an awkward wrist posture.

Check your back position – Raise or lower your chair so that when your feet are flat on the floor, your knees and hips are at 90 degrees of flexion.  If your chair has lumbar support, position it in the curve of your lower spine (usually just above your belt).  If your chair does not have lumbar support, get a small pillow or towel and place it in the correct position.

Check your sitting and/or standing position – Do you stay in one place longer than 5-10 minutes without adjusting your position?  Try moving around in your chair frequently – no position is necessarily “bad” unless you hold it long periods of time.  If you’re standing in one place, shift your weight from foot to foot often and alternate propping up each foot on a rest 6-8” of the floor for a different position.

Check your rest breaks – Do you ever sit any longer than an hour at your desk without getting up?  It’s important to take a little walk-around every hour and stand in place at your desk every 20 minutes.  This promotes good blood supply and undoes the damage you do your body by staying in one position.

Check your activity level – How many hours do you spend on a screen each day?  If you spend all day at work on your computer, it’s best to limit your personal screen time at night.  Your body does not like staying in the same position and using the same muscles for long – the result is discomfort, then aches and pains, and finally injury.

Do you stretch? – Stretches throughout the day loosen up tight muscles and promote that good blood supply.  Here’s a good three-minute routine for your upper body: hang your head and rotate it side to side slowly.  Then, where you feel the most tightness on each side, hold in place for 30 seconds.  Grasp your hands behind your low back with your arms straight and lift up slightly – hold for 30 seconds.  Twist in your chair and grab your back rest – hold for 30 seconds each side.

There, now you’re ready for a great start to the new year.  Enjoy your new-found freedom!

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How to choose a desk that’s ergonomic

So you’re at the computer quite a bit, right?  And you’ve heard that sitting is the new smoking which you’re concerned about.  You may also be starting to feel that your posture is less than ideal and that your neck/shoulder/wrist/back is starting to bother you.  So what can you do?1206_HP_FF_NP08

Getting a desk that’s ergonomic is one of the most important things you can do.  Your desk height can determine how much you stand, how much you sit, how ideal your keyboarding and mousing posture is, and how good your body feels.  It’s important to get your desk height right so you can feel comfortable and productive at work.

Most fixed height desks today still remain within the standard 28-30” range that was chosen with paperwork and handwriting in mind for the offices of the past.  When computers were introduced, desk height did not change, even though ergonomically, it should have.

Ergonomics aims to achieve the most neutral, comfortable position for your body, so that you can reduce the strain placed on your joints and muscles.  When you are using your keyboard and mouse for computer work, the most neutral posture is one where your elbows are at 90 degrees of flexion resting at your sides, with your forearms parallel to the ground.  This height is going to be different for everyone depending on their height and arm length.

To achieve proper desk height, we can do one of two things:  we can measure everyone and custom build desks according to the height they need, or we can have height adjustable desks.  The best way is the latter for the following reasons:  fixed desk height only benefits the person it was made for and can’t be adjusted for others; fixed desk height does not accommodate comfortably for both sitting and standing – only one or the other; and fixed height does not allow for any other office activities such as writing or reading because the height that is needed for those activities is 2-3” above elbow height.

Also, a drawback specific to a fixed standing height desk is the type of chair that is needed for sitting.  A chair of a higher height with a foot ring is needed, but this type of chair is uncomfortable for users.  This is because there is only one position available for the legs – on the foot ring.  Users can’t place their feet anywhere else because they don’t touch the floor.  Also, the foot ring is usually too low and not wide enough, placing pressure on the backs of the thighs and forcing the using to sit forward in their chair which strains the back and neck.

Height adjustable desks are most effective when they can lower for sitting and rise for standing.  The height adjustability should be electric, not crank-style, because it’s too time consuming to crank the desk up and down several times throughout the day – people just won’t do it.  A good sit-stand ratio to follow throughout the day is 45-60 minutes of sitting, followed by 15-20 minutes of standing.  If that’s the case, you will be adjusting your desk up to 10 times a day so you want it to be quick and painless.

When choosing a height adjustable desk, it’s important to measure the height you need your keyboard and mouse at for neutral posture.  Sit in your chair with your feet flat on the ground and your knees and hips at 90 degrees of flexion (you may need to adjust the height of your chair).  Place your elbows at 90 degree angles, your forearms parallel to the ground, and your wrists straight.  Have someone measure from just below your hands to the floor for your keyboard sit height.  Do the same for standing.  Then make sure that the desk will lower to the sit height and rise to the stand height.  This is important because height adjustable desks sometimes don’t lower enough.

There is another option if you don’t want to or can’t replace your desk.  They are sit-stand conversion stations that attach to your desk, and raise the monitor and keyboard simultaneously when you switch from sitting to standing and back.  One good example is the Ergotron Work-Fit S.  Once again, make sure to measure your keyboard sit height and stand height because not all conversion stations lower the keyboard enough.

Working at a height adjustable desk can do wonders for your posture, your body, and your productivity.  With the amount that society sits at a desk all day, it’s something we cannot afford to go without.

Tips to help you sit less

office workers

Much has been in the media lately about the dangers of sitting… or more accurately, the danger of not being active.  Computers and other screen devices have brought our lives to a grinding halt, literally.  We sit, slouch, and lie more than we stand and walk; as a result, our health and mortality are paying the price.

Sedentary time – Biswas et al – January 2015

Research out of Toronto, Canada has discovered that sedentary behavior has been associated with:

  • A 15 to 20 % higher risk of death from any cause;
  • A 15 to 20 % higher risk of heart disease, death from heart disease, cancer, death from cancer;
  • As much as a 90 per cent increased risk of developing diabetes;

… and for the worst news, this is all after adjusting for regular exercise.

But all is not lost!  There are many opportunities for increasing your activity during the day, all of which are quite easy to do.  Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Move around often when sitting – change position, straighten and bend your joints, fidget, anything that is movement;
  • Walk every hour and stand every 20 minutes;
  • Use a sit-stand desk – sit for 45 minutes and stand for 15 every hour;
  • Stand and/or walk during meetings, phone calls, while reading documents, or any time you can;
  • Take the stairs whenever you can during your day;
  • Walk or bike to work;
  • Park your car in the furthest parking spot;
  • Use your lunch hour to do something fun – take a kickboxing or Zumba class, get a walking group going, window shop without stopping;
  • Do a stretch for every body part each hour of your day;
  • Get up every second commercial when watching TV;
  • Walk your dog every night – or borrow somebody else’s!

If you have any other ideas for movement, please share below.  Everyone can benefit from a more active life.

10 signs you’re ready for an ergonomics evaluation

Have you been mulling over what to do about the nagging pain in your [insert pain here: neck/back/shoulder/wrist/thumb/all of the above]?  You may be wondering if an ergonomics evaluation may help you.  Here’s a list of 10 things to help you decide if an evaluation is right for you:

  1. Your pain gets worse at work
  • If your pain intensifies while you’re at work, it’s a pretty good sign that work is contributing to your pain. Even if your pain was caused by an injury outside of work, your pain can be aggravated by the movements you do at work.
  1. Your pain subsides over the night and/or weekend
  • If you feel better once you stop working for the day, or you feel better on the weekends after not working, this is also indicative work may be causing or aggravating your pain.
  1. You used to have sporadic pain, but now your pain is constant
  • If you had pain that used to come and go, but now does not go away, it’s time to do something about it. Unfortunately, things won’t get better from here and will likely get worse.  Intervention through therapy or an ergonomics evaluation is needed.
  1. Your workstation doesn’t feel “right”
  • Maybe when you sit down to work at your computer, you just don’t feel comfortable. Or maybe when you stand at your workstation, things feel off.  A lot of the time, it’s because the heights and distances in your workstation are not right for you.  For example, the monitor might be too far away, the chair tilted the wrong way, the height of your desk or workstation might be too high, etc.  Try changing heights and distances to increase comfort and consider an evaluation if you can’t get it right.
  1. You spend a lot of time at work doing one thing
  • Do you spend all day at the computer? All day standing in an assembly plant?  All day walking in a factory?  Unfortunately, too much of one posture or movement is not good for your body.  It will protest because it’s hard to use the same muscles to do the same thing all the time.  Try alternating the tasks you do during the day if you can.  Otherwise think about having an evaluation so that you can learn how to make some changes in your work habits.
  1. Your work involves repetitive motion
  • People who spend most of the day keyboarding, mousing, assembling, lifting, or any other type of work that involves the same motion over and over are at risk for pain and injury. When you keyboard all day, the muscles in your hands, wrists, and fingers get overused.  When you lift, the muscles in your back are at risk because they keep working with no breaks doing the same thing.  Try to eliminate the repetitive motion at work – an evaluation can help you with this as well.
  1. Your work puts you in awkward postures
  • An awkward posture is where your joints are out of neutral and subsequently puts you at risk for injury. For example, if you are typing, it is best to keep your wrists straight as this is neutral posture.  If you bend your wrists upward because your keyboard is too high or too slanted, you are now in an awkward posture.  Your body does not like this one bit – even very minimal bending in a body joint can cause some people quite a bit of pain.  Try to eliminate the awkward postures in your work and have an evaluation if you can’t get them all.
  1. Your work involves either too much activity or not enough
  • Some people don’t get enough activity and are sitting all day. Some people get too much activity walking, bending, and reaching all day.  Neither scenario is great and it puts you at a greater risk of injury.  See what you can do about increasing or decreasing your activity during your breaks and leisure time.  An evaluation can help you target what the problem is and what to do about it.
  1. You are going for physical/chiropractic/massage therapy and you are not getting better
  • Getting therapy for your pain is a great idea, but sometimes it’s all for naught when you go to work. For example, if you are having therapy because of neck pain and you go to work where your monitor is too high; therapy is not going to work as well as it could unless you get that monitor lowered.  An evaluation can pinpoint all the areas that could be causing your pain.
  1. You have tried ergonomics equipment, but it has not helped
  • Some people go ahead and get an ergonomic mouse or a split keyboard, only to find that it does not help their pain. I find it’s better to have an evaluation first before spending money on equipment.  Many times it’s cheaper to have an evaluation because you might not even need equipment, just a workstation adjustment.  And if it’s found that equipment is needed, the right kind with the right features will be recommended for you during the evaluation.  Most importantly, an ergonomics evaluation will involve key components that equipment alone won’t provide – help with adjusting your posture, making sure the heights and distances are correct for you, and guidance on how to pace yourself during the day.

The best ergonomics tip – relax at work

Man Relaxing At Office Desk In a Green Field

Over the years of assessing people at work, I have noticed one important factor that rings true every time: people who are relaxed while working rarely get injured. These are the people who sit at their computers in a laid-back posture looking very untroubled. Their shoulders are low and slack, not hunched up; their back is against the backrest; their head and neck are loose, not peering forward into the computer; and their legs are stretched out in a relaxed posture. These people sometimes start to have aches and pains, but they make the necessary adjustments to stop them. Maybe they change the height of their monitor, maybe they alternate hands when mousing, maybe they use more keyboard shortcuts, maybe they try a different chair, etc. They usually keep trying a lot of different things and mix their working postures up too. They may slouch, stand, or use a laptop for half an hour in an arm chair or bean bag. They also take lots of breaks – they get water, coffee, and snacks; they chat with other people; and they go for walks outside.

And just in case it sounds like these people weren’t getting their work done, the opposite was actually true. They worked just as hard, if not harder, when they were chilling out. Maybe they had more energy to work from keeping their body loose, or maybe they were more productive because their bodies weren’t being distracted by nagging aches and pains.

It turns out my theory has been researched and proven as well. An article titled “Work technique and its consequences for musculoskeletal disorders” found that workers who had a forward neck flexion and raised arms ended up with more neck and shoulder problems. Those who had a dynamic pattern of movements were less likely to be injured.

So some of my best ergonomics advice … relax at work. Here are some things to try:

  • Keep your whole body loose. To see what relaxed feels like, tense up your muscles, take a deep breath and let them loose. Do this frequently throughout the day.
  • Pretend you’re on the couch watching TV or a movie. That’s exact feeling of relaxation you want when working.
  • Change your posture often. Try different things. Don’t be afraid to slouch or twist, just as long as you keep moving and don’t spend too much time in one posture or the other.
  • Take breaks.
  • Go for a walk.
  • Do range of motion exercises. Rotate your arms around your shoulder sockets. Alternate raising your knees to your hips when standing. Flex and extend your wrists.
  • Micropause. While waiting for your computer to load, relax your arms.
  • Deep breathe constantly. Even one deep breath gives you a feeling of instant relaxation.

Please leave a comment if you have any other tips on how to relax!

Computer ergonomics when working from home – Part 1

In this day and age, people are working from home more and more often.  Some people work overtime on weeknights and weekends and some people work from home full-time and don’t go into an office at all.  There are definite pros for working at home such as taking breaks more often and eliminating a long commute, but there are cons too.  The most noticeable con is a working environment that is not ergonomically correct. Very rarely does ergonomics come to mind when putting a home workstation together – there is likely more concern about where space can be found!  For many people, there is no home workstation at all, but rather the kitchen table or the couch with their laptop.

So how can you put your home office together without breaking the bank?  Here are a few tips:

1.  Office chair – For full-time at-home workers, I don’t think there’s any way around not getting a good office chair.  There are too many hours in the day to be sitting on a hard, non-adjustable kitchen chair.  These are the minimum chair features you will need:

  • Height adjustability – For the most comfort, your feet should rest on the floor with your knees and hips at 90 degree angles.
  • Proper seat pan depth – For those with shorter legs, you will need a small seat pan.  You don’t want the backs of your knees coming in contact with the front of the seat or you will be uncomfortable and will end up sitting at the front of your chair.  For those with longer legs, you will need a larger seat so that your legs are supported fully.  For everyone, make sure there is 1-2 inches between the front of the chair and the back of your knees.
  • Height adjustable armrests that lower below the worksurface – Most chairs don’t have armrests that lower enough to fit under your desk or keyboard tray.  Sometimes it’s better not to have armrests at all.
  • Comfort – This is not a feature as much as how the chair feels to you.  Ideally you would be able to try the chair out at home for a few days before buying.
  • Extras – For greater comfort, try to get a chair with lumbar support and a height and angle adjustable backrest.

2.  Height adjustable worksurface – To reduce strain on your neck, shoulders, and back while using your keyboard; your elbows should be at your sides at a 90 degree angle with your forearms parallel to the floor.  Standard desks will be too high for most of the population, except maybe for those who are 6’6” or taller.  A great inexpensive solution is the Galant desk from Ikea – you can raise or lower the legs to the proper height for you.  However if you are shorter or taller than most people and if more than one person is using the workstation, a better choice would be a standard desk with a height and tilt adjustable keyboard tray

3.  Computer – Use a separate monitor and keyboard rather than a laptop.  When using a laptop, you can’t separate the monitor and keyboard which leaves you with your head and neck bent down and your arms and shoulders raised up.  If you must use a laptop:  recline on your bed or on the couch with your back, neck and head supported with pillows; your legs straight and supported; and your laptop on your thighs.

4.  Monitor – Place it directly in front of you an arm’s length away and make sure the top of the monitor is level with your eyes.  If it’s not, use books to prop it up.

5.  Telephone – Use speakerphone if you can, or invest in a headset.  You should always avoid cradling your phone between your ear and your shoulder.

The above tips will help you take care of the environment around you, but there are other things you can do to make your home working experience more ergonomic.  Stay tuned for Part 2…