Updated: Feb 1
So you have been sitting at your desk all day and your back is killing you or you have been studying for exams for hours and you have a terrible neck ache-what can you do? You have to go back to work or class tomorrow and start all over again! We all know that prolonged sitting is not good for us for a number of reasons, but many of us have no choice given our daily activities.
Sitting creates a great deal of stress over the muscles that work as “scaffolding” for our skeleton-that is-the muscles that hold us up as we sit. The longer we sit in one position, the harder those muscles that support our spine have to work.
Ensuring your desk set up is optimal can go a long way in reducing the stress over these muscles and subsequent pain they can cause. Just what is the best way to have your desk set up so that you can still get your work done and not have to live on over the counter pain relievers or with constant pain and stiffness? Let’s start from the feet and work up to see how you can make sure you are working with the best set up possible.
Position: Your feet should be flat on the floor to where you can comfortably rest them there without feeling as if you are dangling (for those of us who are on the shorter side). Unsupported feet can cause a great deal of low back strain and fatigue of the core muscles that stabilize the spine.
Fix: If you have an adjustable chair to bring your down low enough to get your feet flat-fantastic! If not, putting your feet up on a book, step, or footstool will do the job. This footstool is a great option as it adjusts both for height and tilt for knee and ankle comfort.
Position: your knees should be parallel to the floor or slightly higher than your knees-for taller people, sitting in a desk chair (even at the highest level of the chair) can still cause you to feel as if you are sitting in a hole. Too low of a chair can also be a source of low back pain, as it puts your hips in excessive flexion and tilts your pelvis in a way that strains the low back. After 8 hours of this, the back muscles will be very unhappy indeed!
Fix: adjust your chair as needed to achieve this position. If you are unable to get high enough with the chair, you can add a cushion to raise your up. If you are looking for a good one, check out this seat cushion.
Position: Your elbows should be at 90 degrees and should essentially form the shape of an “L”. This allows your shoulders and wrists (when properly supported) to remain in a neutral posture and reduce excessive bending which can contribute to carpal tunnel syndrome.
Fix: Adjusting your chair height will allow you to achieve the 90 degrees at the elbows (but this may affect your need for something under your feet). Taller people may need to add a cushion to sit on to get yourself high enough to attain the “L” position at the elbows.
Position: Your wrists should be supported in neutral. Now that you have your elbows at the right angle and your feet are supported, your wrists should be in a neutral which means that the angle of your wrist should be in straight line with your forearm. You do not want the crease of your wrist to be too far above or below the end of your forearm. This creates restriction at the carpal tunnel in the wrist and contributes to nerve compression/tingling of fingers and hands.
Fix: If you are working with a keyboard that causes your wrist to drop down while your fingers are on the keys, getting a wrist support/pad to place under your wrist while you type will get you into that neutral position. These can be found in an office supply store or online. This set supports your wrist with both a keyboard and a mouse.
· If you are working on a laptop, this tends not to be so much of an issue.
· If you are using a mouse, it should be at the same level as your keyboard.
Position: Your monitor should be directly in front of you and not off to one side. Looking off to one side all day puts a tremendous amount of strain over your neck and will cause one side to become significantly tighter than the other. This can lead to neck pain and headaches, as well as issues with muscle strength symmetry over time.
In addition, have your monitor about a full arm’s length away from you to allow for ease of reading and room for your keyboard while allowing for proper arm position while sitting.
Fix: Move your monitor directly in front of your position in the chair and an arm’s length away from you. The top of the monitor should be at or just below your eye level. This will allow you to keep your head and neck in a neutral position and reduce the load over your front and back neck muscles. If you do not want to use books to raise your monitor, this adjustable monitor stand is a great option.
· If you wear bifocals, drop the top of the monitor (you may need to raise yourself up) by 1-2 inches to prevent you from having to look up through the bifocals.
Some additional bits of advice:
· Once you have your chair height and position sorted out to allow for the above positions, have a support for the curve of your low back in the form a pillow, towel roll, or lumbar cushion so that your back does not curve into a “hammock” position. The support should allow you to side comfortably in the chair, with your feet and knees in proper positions while allowing your ears, shoulders, and hips to be in line with each down the side of your body. A good lumbar cushion can help you maintain good posture and this cushion is worth checking out.
· If you are using a laptop that is not set up on a desk, get it off your lap! Sitting on the couch with the laptop on your lap puts your neck and low back in an overly flexed (and stressed) position. If you are not working at a desk, put a pillow or two on your lap and then the laptop on the pillows to raise it up so you do not have to look down on the screen. There are also laptop risers that you can purchase that provide a support stand for use either on a desk or in your lap. This one is adjustable and will help you get in a better position. The other recommended positions apply.
· If you are spending a great deal of time on the phone, you should consider using either speaker phone mode or use headset/earbuds so that you do not have to flex your head sideways to hold the phone while writing, typing, etc. This is becoming less of an issue with the increased use of cell phones, however some people who work in an office setting may still be using a traditional receiver in cradle phone.
Finally, the last recommendation that I always make to the patients I work with regarding desk set up is to get up VERY FREQUENTLY to break the holding of one position for long periods of time.
This can be something as simple as standing up at your desk, doing some simple stretches at your desk or taking a short walk to the bathroom/break room to grab something to drink.
Holding sitting work positions for several hours is what contributes to muscle fatigue and pain and even a quick change of position every 30 minutes can be very helpful in combating both. Setting a timer on your computer or phone can be a simple way to remind yourself to get up and move around.
So, check out your desk set up and see what changes you can make to help yourself combat stiffness and discomfort that can come from the necessity of working at a desk or work station.
Stay Well & Feel Good,
Hi! I am Dr. Kim MacDonald. I am a physical therapist who specializes in empowering my patients to optimize how they move their bodies and improve their ability to do the things they love regardless of age, experience, or capabilities.
My experience in the health care field allows me to teach the tools you need to ensure that you are working safely to improve your pain and maximize your physical potential.
If you would like to know more about how you can help yourself be healthier and live a more active lifestyle, join me here
If you are having back pain or sciatica and cannot get relief, check out my quick Soothe Your Spine video course on what you should be doing to reduce your pain