Back Pain Prevention at Work
Building an Ergonomic Home Office
Q. I have heard a lot about ergonomics in the workplace, and I am interested in how ergonomics can help me with my chronic upper back pain and neck pain. However, I work at home (mostly computer-based), and space is limited. What are some simple tips for improving the ergonomics of my home office?
Answer: In general, ergonomics studies people and their work. The goals of ergonomics are typically to reduce stress on the worker, implement an efficient work design, match people with the appropriate task, and educate the worker on preventing injury. As a result, ergonomics can likely relieve your chronic back and neck pain by helping you create a proper work environment that is conducive to your needs.
Believe it or not, research shows that sitting is more harmful on the spine than most physically demanding tasks. Since most of your work is computer-based, it sounds like you work a sedentary job. Because sitting creates undesirable stresses on the back and neck and is a leading cause of disc herniations (bulging discs), you must monitor your duration of sitting.
It is the act of sitting that is inherently bad, so no matter how you sit, you are still placing your body in a precarious position. Excessive sitting is qualified as 50 minutes or longer. However, I’m a bit more conservative and consider 30 minutes to be excessive sitting. Therefore, I suggest standing and taking a break every 20-30 minutes.
During your mini-break, it is not enough to just stand up. You should walk a few steps and perform a stretch. Try this sample stretch:
- After walking a few steps, remain standing and stretch your hands toward the ceiling.
- Hold that position for about 5 seconds and lower your hands down to the sides of your body.
- Next, bring your shoulders back and envision squeezing a pencil between your shoulder blades. Again, hold this position for 5 seconds.
You have successfully completed the necessary stretch to combat some of the ill-effects of excessive sitting. This process is a great step for relieving sitting-induced back and neck pain. The stretch break takes about a minute, but its effects will last exponentially longer.
Since you work from home, I’m assuming you have the freedom to stand and take these stretch breaks every 20-30 minutes. However, if you are a worker that doesn’t have the freedom to stand up and stretch, it’s critical to ensure you are using proper posture. As I said, I don’t believe it matters how you sit, because sitting is the problem. So, if you are unable to stand and stretch, the next best thing is to ensure you are sitting in a position that causes your back and neck the least amount of harm.
Obtaining proper seated posture is easy, as long as you know what to do. First, be sure you are sitting on a chair that allows you to place your feet flat on the floor. Then, remember the rule of 90: position your knees, hips, and elbows at 90 degrees. Make sure you are sitting up straight—stretch your head toward the ceiling as you sit—and move your butt all the way to the back of the chair. Bring your shoulders back, and keep your head in a neutral position. A neutral head position means your head is not too far forward, backward, up or down. Prolonged, abnormal head position will cause neck pain. Finally, set up your computer so there isn’t a glare on the monitor and you aren’t forced to shrug your shoulders while you type.
There are many steps you can take to make your small workplace ergonomically efficient. You may also consider using an ergonomic chair with an accessory lumbar support. An ergonomic chair allows you to change positions easier and typically has a more desirable contour. The lumbar support is a good reminder to sit up straight and can prevent you from slouching.
Remember, the most important thing you can do to create an ergonomic home workspace is stand and take your stretch break every 20-30 minutes. If that is not feasible, make sure you sit with proper posture, and use an ergonomic chair with a lumbar support.
For more information about how ergonomics can improve your back pain, read these 5 Tips to a Spine-friendly Work Space.