WHEN WORKING FROM HOME BECOMES A PAIN IN THE NECK: Postural Stress and Your Home Office - Andrew Leipus
“Sports & Rehab Physiotherapy clinic has been busier than expected over the past few weeks. There has been an increase in exercise-related injuries from people returning enthusiastically to fitness – lots of calf strains, shin splints and knee-related issues. But interestingly, we have also seen an increase in spinal related pain and headaches from sustained poor positions and workplace setups. Injury doesn’t always have to occur with high load activity!
Those able to work remotely during the lockdown are now discovering that their home was not quite suitable to be a fulltime ‘office’. Whether you are tapping away at a desk, sitting at the kitchen table or bench with the kids or just parked on the couch, it’s important to consider how you are positioning your body for long periods to prevent postural stresses building up.
The body’s most ergonomic position is actually standing upright, hence the growth in standing desks in contemporary offices around the world. These adjustable workspaces offer health benefits and have been found to be the most efficient. But the majority of us don’t have these available to us and considering most of us spend a huge chunk of our day sitting (an average of 10 hours), it’s important to get our sitting right.
The ‘gold standard’ position whilst seated is to aim for 90-degree angles at your ankles, knees, hips and elbows. The key is to start at the hips and then stack the head on the neck, the neck on the upper back and then the whole spine should be centred over the pelvis. This will make a vertical line from the top of the head through to the centre of the pelvis. Think about sitting tall and into the back of the chair. This ensures you cannot slump or lose the natural hollow curve in the lower back. Additionally, you want your knees and torso to form a 90-degree angle, with your feet flat on the ground (you might need a foot rest to get this position right if you cannot adjust the desk height).
For the upper body, the elbows should form a right angle and your shoulders need to be in a relaxed position with forearms resting supported on the desk. Wrists should also be relaxed, with your hands slightly raised and curved on your mouse and keyboard.
Obtaining and staying in this one ‘ideal’ position is unrealistic for everyone, so we try to subtly soften the angles. If possible, slightly tilt the base of the chair putting your knees slightly lower than your thighs. You can also slightly tilt the upper back of the chair backwards so it’s not quite vertical, roughly 3-5 centimetres back.
You want your work surface to be set at the height of your elbows, or slightly below. Too high will require you to raise your arms and shoulders, potentially causing discomfort and too low will result in a forward-bending position with your head in front of your body. Your elbows should then be below your shoulder and at 90 degrees. Wherever your fingers lay should be the centre of the keyboard. Despite most of us using one, you should be able to see that working with a laptop is actually terrible from an ergonomic perspective!
Position your screen so that the top is at your eye level. Your eyeline will then fall slightly below this. The screen should be about 40-60 centimetres from your face and tilt the top away from you.
For those wanting a standing desk, even a DIY one made up with books or an ironing board, make sure the screen is stacked up at the correct eyeline height with the keyboard at the right 90-degree elbow level so there is no undue stress on the shoulders.
Your body’s work position may now be technically perfect but it’s still vital to break up any sustained positions. It’s important to get up and move regularly to change postures. It can be as simple as standing up and walking around the room, or going outside for some fresh air. Do some gentle stretching to relieve those postural stresses. In physio-speak we also encourage a regular ‘chin retraction movement, gliding the chin backwards toward the throat to ‘reverse’ prolonged forward head positions (a big factor in headache development). Depending on your injury history, make these moves and change positions every 30-60 minutes.
Don’t forget the little ones! The same principles apply to finding a suitable place for the kids’ online schooling and homework. A good desk set-up will go a long way to developing good habits and postural development in addition to just being more comfortable for them.
- Use a cushion if you need to raise your position at a table, to pad your seat, to raise your thighs or to support your lower back.
- Use a box or books for a footrest if your seat is too high.
- Using a suitably sized fitness ball is great for maintaining core strength but it does take time to build your endurance. Start with two 30 minute stints in the morning and afternoon, and gradually increase from there.
- Avoid working from the couch, but if it’s really too enticing, keep the session to less than 30 minutes.
MOVE SPORTS PHYSIO AND REHAB
082 484 3839