Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, millions of Americans were forced to transition from ergonomically sound workstations at their office, to less desirable accommodations in the home. If you are one of these people, you may be noticing some new aches and pains that you didn’t notice at the office. The set up in many offices tends to include adjustable office chairs, desktop computers and appropriate lighting.
Residential settings don’t often meet the same ergonomic standards as the office. In many instances people are using a laptop computer on the dining room table, the kitchen countertop, or even worse they are working from the couch and coffee table or bed. Chances are that you’ve been in a compromised posture. In the short term, these positions aren’t terribly detrimental, but since weeks have now turned into months of working from home…we’ve got a problem.
Poor posture puts a strain on the musculoskeletal system over time. Some muscles get lengthened while others become short and weak. Think of this as a repetitive use type injury that takes place over your 8 hour work day. The symptoms may appear as a sore low back, stiff neck and shoulders, headaches or numbness and tingling in the arms and hands.
Let’s talk about a few things we can do at home to alleviate the postural stressors that are contributing to your discomfort. Then we will add a few movements that will help counteract the asymmetry that occurs with prolonged sitting.
- Typically, when using a laptop computer the surface of the table or countertop is significantly lower than our line of sight. In an effort to compensate we tend to crank our neck downward and this can cause a strain on the musculature of the neck. To combat this, elevate the computer so that it is more aligned with your line of sight. Ideally your eyes should align with the top of the screen. If you are working with a laptop computer, elevating it on a cardboard box or a stack of books would be most useful. This will require an inexpensive remote keyboard and will be well worth the price. Finally, be sure that the computer is directly in front of you and not off to one side.
- The keyboard should be placed on a flat surface, allowing for the elbow, forearm and wrist to be in the same plane. This will reduce strain on the wrist and can help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome. Positioning the elbows at the sides of the body will alleviate undue stress on the shoulders and neck. The more your elbows flare from your torso, the greater chance you have of straining your neck or shoulder.
- Find a neutral position for your low back while seated. More often than not, using the backrest on a chair will provide just that. Our low back, or lumbar spine has a natural curve which rounds forward and is called a lordosis. Anatomically this is a naturally supportive curve and is preserved when we use a backrest. When we lean forward to look at our computer screen the curve is pushed in the opposite direction and this is called a kyphosis. This position puts a lot of undue stress on the intervertebral discs, the ligaments, muscles and nerves of the low back. Lumbar support pillows are a great tool to help us preserve the natural curve of the spine in this region.
- Foot and hip position also play an important role in proper ergonomics. The feet should be placed flat on the floor. This keeps the hips level and provides a strong foundation for the spine to sit upon. Having the hips level with the knees or even a bit higher than the knees is ideal. If you sit on a low couch and your hips are down below your knees as you reach out to your laptop on the coffee table, there will be a price to pay. This shortens and tightens a group of muscles known as “the hip flexors”. The result is having the lumbar spine pulled further into a compromised position, causing more stress on the structures it relies on to stay happy and healthy.
- Sit-Stand desks are great and provide some postural variation. Sitting too long and standing too long can have their drawbacks. Remember that if you haven’t been conditioned to stand for long periods of time, your body will need to ease into the standing posture for longer and longer periods of time. Whether you are standing or sitting, it is recommended that you take breaks every 30 minutes or so to stretch or move around and be active for 1-2 minutes. This will stimulate the circulation and diminish postural tension.
Following these tips will help you improve your posture in your home office. Remember to get up and move around throughout your day. Please feel free to contact our office to schedule an examination and treatment for your neck or back pain.