Many patients find themselves sitting for long periods of time at work in front of their computer. This modern transition to more sedentary work with prolonged static postures can be stressful on our backs and has created some very common patterns of shoulder and low back tension. Patients often ask about how they can best handle their work environment. So here’s some guidelines to provide general ideas of caring for your spine at work. Remember, if you are ever in doubt, your chiropractor is a great resource for ergonomic information.
Low Back – Your chair should support the natural “S” curve of your back. The means that the lumbar (low back) support should bend in towards you as you sit in it. If your chair has a straight back instead, then you can find portable lumbar supports that can be inserted in between the chair and your back. Additionally, some chairs have adjustable backs that allow you to increase or decrease their support. If you don’t haveany of these options, even a rolled up towel can provide proper support.
Elbows and shoulders – These two regions get a lot of strain especially when they are improperly positioned. In general your upper arms should be parallel to your body. This naturally puts your shoulder in a neutral position. If your upper arm is moved either forward or back (to reach the keyboard for example), move either closer towards or further away from your desk. Your elbows should form a 90 degree angle between your upper arm and forearm. Your forearm should lay comfortably on the armrest and even give a very slight lift to your shoulder.
Head and Neck position – While we may not notice it, office workers often find themselves using their necks to either look up to or look down at their monitors. So take a second now as you read this to shut your eyes. Position your neck so that you feel upright and as though you will be looking forward. Now keep your eyes straight ahead and look forward. Open your eyes and take notice of where your gaze falls on the computer screen. If it’s not generally centered, move your monitor up or down to correct. Most importantly, do not allow your head to droop forward or lean in. This creates significant tension in the muscles of your shoulder as well as your neck.
Knees and ankles – The best guideline is simply to keep both your ankles and knees at 90 degrees as well. Most office chairs have the ability to adjust the height. If your are shorter and still cannot rest your feet flat on the floor when it’s at its lowest, then obtain a footrest to help you support your feet (and legs).
Types of chairs – In recent years there has been use of the physioball to substitute for traditional office chairs. Initially, the exercise balls themselves served to replace the chair altogether. You can now find exercise balls that come perched in a stable frame that rolls and has an adjustable back rest. The initial idea behind the chair was to require the “active” stabilization of the core during the day rather than more “passive” sitting. Studies have shown that there is increased activation when using the exercise balls versus the static chair. However, studies indicate there may be greater spinal shrinkage over the course of a day when using the physioball. Most importantly, everyone has different preferences. If you would like to encoporate a physioball into your work station, consider the following. Transition slowly. Use the ball for short periods of time to condition your body. Also, keeping a standard office chair close at hand will allow you to switch back should you find yourself fatigued or losing your balance.
Most important – Move around. Long periods of sitting on anything put additional strain and stretch on spinal muscles and ligaments as well. I advise all my patients who spend time in front of their computers to get up at least once an hour to gently stretch and walk around for a few minutes. Movement is a cornerstone of spinal and overall joint health. So keep your body moving!