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Are You Sitting Comfortably? How Your Chair Can Cause Back Pain

Sitting on an ergonomic chair can improve your comfort and the health of your back. I am frequently asked, "What is the best ergonomic chair?" There is no single 'best ergonomic chair' that fits all body shapes and sizes and that is comfortable for everyone. However, there are questions you should ask about a chair before you try it to determine how well it has been ergonomically designed for you:

Sit on the chair, don't just look at it!
The term 'ergonomic design' is like the term 'low calorie'. It describes a minimum set of requirements and not a single, universal product. You can only tell whether an ergonomic chair will work for you if you sit in the chair for some time. Of course, if it's really uncomfortable, then you will know this pretty quickly. But, sometimes things that seem comfortable after a few minutes use don't work so well in the long term.

woman working in an ergonomic chair

Is the seat comfortable?
The seat shouldn't feel too hard or soft, be uncomfortable under your hips or thighs, and it should not be too long. Use the 1-inch rule: The seat pan should be at least 1-inch wider than your hips and thighs, and there should be at least a 1-inch gap between the front of the seat and the back of your knees when you're sitting back in the chair. Look for:

  • a seat slide to adjust to your upper leg length
  • a rounded 'waterfall' front of the seat
  • a chair seat pan that swivels easily so you don't have to twist your lower back when you reach to the side or turn around.

Is the back comfortable?
When you sit back, do your lower back and shoulder blades feel well-supported? Look for a chair with a height-adjustable lumbar back support to snugly fit the curve of your lower back. Check that the chair still fits your back whether you sit upright or lean back. Make sure the chair back is wide enough for your back, but not so wide that it restricts your arm movements. Avoid chairs with a static back that adjusts and locks to only one position because it will only support you in that one position. Look for a 'dynamic back' to allow you to easily move and recline in the chair while being supported at all positions.

Can you easily use the controls?
Avoid chairs with controls that are complicated, poorly designed and inconveniently placed. Look for chairs that have controls that can easily be reached when sitting down and that are easy to use. At a minimum you should be able to control the height of the seat, but you might also be able to control the seat pan depth and tilt. Some chairs provide a tension control for the seat back while other chairs do this automatically based on your body weight.

Do you need adjustable armrests?
Not all chairs have armrests. Using armrests helps you to get in and out of a chair and helps to protect your knees and back from undue strain. So look for the armrest feature. Check to make sure the chair armrests are strong enough for your weight and will not tip the chair when you push down on them. Armrests are also useful for occasionally resting. Look for broad, contoured, cushioned and comfortable armrests that you can easily adjust while sitting. At a minimum, you should be able to adjust armrest height. Some chairs also let you adjust armrest angle in and out and forwards or backwards. Look for chairs where you can easily move the arms out of the way when not needed.

What about a headrest?
A headrest is a useful feature. The chair headrest helps to reduce strain on the neck and shoulders when you recline back in the chair.

How stable is the chair?
Check the chair to make sure it will not tip when you lean on it. It should have at least a 5 pedestal base with casters that glide freely over the floor surface.

Remember, you can't choose an ergonomic chair just by looking at it! You have to sit in it! Ideally, you should 'test drive' the chair at your actual workplace for a day or two. Then you will see how it performs over time. Today there are many excellent chairs to choose from, so use this guide for 'healthy sitting.'

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Updated on: 02/01/10
Ergonomic chairs offer one of many work site strategies for alleviating many of the aches and pains associated with sedentary desk work. Being able to make adjustments in height, depth, and position of one?s body can help decrease the loads on the spine and other musculoskeletal structures. However, if the funds are not available for an ergonomic chair, some modifications can be made with existing chairs to improve comfort. Using a lumbar roll, or back support can improve spinal positioning in a chair. Modifying the computer height, even using a telephone book, can change one?s sitting posture to make it more ?ergonomic?. Possibly the best modification of all is to get up and out of the chair, ergonomic or not, every 20 to 30 minutes and just walk around the desk once or twice. The disk is generally loaded more with increasing flexion. Sitting for long periods of time increase the spinal loads and don?t give the disk the chance to unload.
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