Neck and back pain often result from too much sitting and computer use. Although we usually think of sitting as a “rest” activity this seemingly innocuous every day activity puts significant loads on our spine. While it may not appear strenuous, science has shown that sitting increases the pressure on low back discs and even more so if we slouch. When doing ergonomic assessments I frequently find people don’t take the time to adjust their chair.  I go into their office and find the tags still attached and the manufacturer’s plastic still covering the knobs.   Taking a few minutes to ensure you have a good ergonomic set-up of your work space and your chair will go a long way in relieving and preventing repetitive strain injuries and pain.

Sitting is the new cancer

Sitting has received some pretty bad press lately, even being referred to as the new cancer.   This perpetual inactivity can lead to a reduction in physical fitness levels and health. Before you try to combat this trend by changing jobs or switching to a treadmill desk there are a couple of simple things you can do to reduce the impact of sitting and promote better health and comfort.

  1. Improve the way you sit  (posture and how the chair “fits” you)
  2. Reduce the length of time you sit 

What to look for when buying a new chair 

 The longer you sit the more important it is that you have the right support.  The right chair encourages good posture to unload your spine. Your chair should “fit” you just like a good pair of shoes fits your feet. To help encourage a good fit when you are purchasing an office type chair look for adjustable, “ergonomic” features.  You should be able to adjust the chair to make sure it provides the support you need.  Look for a chair where you can: 

  • Adjust the height of the chair
  • Alter the depth of the seat pan
  • Raise or lower the arm rests
  • Angle or tilt the back of the chair
  • Increase or decrease the support for the back (lordosis)

Take the time to adjust your chair

An ergonomic assessment of your office work station, and in particular your chair, is becoming more recognized as an important element in injury prevention.  Having an ergonomic assessment when you are new to the job is a best practice in some of the companies where I provide onsite ergonomic consulting however not every business provides this for their employees, particularly if we work at home or are self-employed.  With a few simple tips many of us can learn how to improve our set up and reduce our risk for the injuries of stationary living.   Posture and comfort can be improved by using these guidelines to ensure your chair “fits” you. The diagram below shows how we should be positioned when sitting. We call it “neutral” as this position has minimal strain. The set up of the chair helps to give you the right support in “neutral”. Familiarize yourself with your chair’s features and adjust them to enable a neutral posture.

  • Note the upright position of the spine with hips at the back of the chair.
  • Eyes level with the top of the monitor
  • Elbows at a right angle, arms by your side
  • Wrists in line with the forearms
  • Hips and knees at a right angle or slightly downward sloping
  • Feet flat on the floor or foot stool

How to improve your current ergonomic set-up

Even if you don’t have the perfect chair,  simple adjustments can improve many set-ups.  Here are a few suggestions to improve your current work set up:

  • Use a pillow or back support if your chair is too deep or if it leans back too far.
  • Use a foot stool if the chair is too high or sit on a cushion if it’s too low.
  • Purchase an external keyboard for your portable.  This allows you to raise the computer screen without lifting your hands too high.

Finally, remember that even when you have an optimal chair set- up it is still important to stand and move around.  Try to move about 5 minutes for every 40-60 minutes of sitting.  Walk or climb stairs on your longer breaks to give your body some much needed activity.

Onsite assessment and resources

An ergonomic assessment provides a practical way of keeping employees healthy. As an employer or manager if members of your team are having symptoms or have lost time from work due to aches and pains related to their chair or work station, consider having an ergonomic assessment completed. This can be conveniently done on site, adjustments made where possible and recommendations discussed. Alternatively be pro-active and improve your employee’s work station before they get symptoms.  To discuss or arrange onsite ergonomic services contact Gareth Sneath at gsneath@orthophysio.com, 416-925-4687.

Looking for more advice?

Check out the September 2016 article posted by Juliette Woodruff, RMT “Tips to relieve mid back pain and discomfort”.

The Ontario Ministry of Labor has an excellent web site on the other ergonomic factors to consider for your work station  https://www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/hs/pubs/comp_erg/

Gareth Sneath, PT MScCH MCPA Grad Dip Man Ther.  Gareth is a registered physiotherapist working in downtown Toronto at the Orthopaedic Therapy Clinic .  In addition to providing assessment and treatments for repetitive strain injuries he is a frequent consultant providing onsite ergonomic assessments for businesses and for his clients.

This advice is not intended to replace the advice of your professional or to replace an ergonomic assessment.  Contact your professional if you are having pain or require further advice.