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Office Ergonomic Setup at the Office: How Does Yours Measure Up?

   Ergonomics in the office place is a hot topic and with good reason...you spend most of your waking hours there. If you have a desk job, this place that we are referring to is the space in and around your computer, chair, and desk.

  Why is it so important to have a good desk setup anyway? If you sit with poor posture all day and/or have awkward placement of frequently used desktop items such as your computer screen, keyboard, or mouse, you are more likely to sustain what we in the rehab world refer to as a repetitive or chronic strain injury.  Some of the most common of these injuries include pain at the wrist, elbow, low back/lumbar region, upper back/thoracic region, and the neck/cervical region.  While most of these injuries seem minor and "just nagging" at first, these type of injuries can lead to more aggravating and/or more chronic conditions that can reak havoc on your life.

  When organizing your work station, there are a few key concepts to keep in mind.  First, it is important to understand that setting up your work station should be very personalized. What works for a co-worker may not work for you. We are all different in our body shape and size as well as our arm, trunk, and leg lengths.  Your specific job tasks and work flow patterns will also help determine your optimal ergonomic work station. 

   While assessing your work station, it is helpful to understand the idea of neutral body positioning, the position where your joints rest in a natural alignment where strain and stress on the muscles, tendons, and joints are minimized.  First, let’s start with where you sit- your chair.  Your chair should have an adjustable height, to allow you to have your feet flat on the floor and to have your body at an appropriate height compared to your desk. Your hips and knees should be bent to 90 degrees.  With your thighs and hips generally parallel to the floor, two to three inches between your chair and the back of your knees is optimal.  The desk and the armrests on the chair should be approximately at belly button height.  It is important to make sure that armrests are not too high, too low, or too wide.   A footrest may also be used if the desk height is not adjustable.   In order to maintain proper posture while sitting, you may need some lumbar support to avoid low back strain. The curve of your chair should meet with the curve of your low back.  if this is not the case,you may need to adjust the seat height (to align the often built-in lumbar support with your lumbar region); this can also be achieved by adding a cylindrical pillow or rolled up towel roll behind your low back.

  Your keyboard should be placed directly in front of you to negate the need for reaching, with your elbows opened to 90-120 degrees and your wrists in a relaxed and neutral position (not bent) when resting on the keyboard. You may require a keyboard tray attached to your desk to ensure this optimal position. Your hands, wrists, and forearms should be roughly parallel to the floor.  You may need to prop the back of your keyboard up to achieve this neutral wrist position. Your shoulders should be relaxed, with your arms resting by your sides naturally.

   Adjacent to and at the same height as your keyboard, your mouse should be in an area on your desk where you do not have to reach for it and where your wrist can remain in neutral while using it. Rest your hand(s) in your lap when not entering data; do not keep your hand resting on the mouse. 

   Your monitor should be placed at a level where you can keep your head in neutral (looking straight forward) with your shoulders relaxed; in order to achieve this alignment, you may need to raise the monitor up on a stand.  Your monitor should be approximately 20-40 inches distance from your head, with the top of the monitor tilted back 15-20 degrees.  The top of the viewing screeen should be at eye level.  If you wear bifocals, you may need to lower the monitor a couple of inches to prevent you from tilting your head back to view the screen.  To reduce glare, position monitors at right angles from windows.  If your work entails primarily printed material, place the printed material directly in front of you (at same height and distance as monitor), with your monitor slightly to the side.   You should be able to keep your head and neck straight with your shoulders relaxed and your trunk in a vertical or slightly reclined position.  You should be sitting all the way back in your chair with your upper back flush against the chair.

Your workflow throughout the day can also determine the best ergonomic setup for you.   For example, if you shift between doing a lot of paperwork and also a lot of computer work, you will want to ensure that your keyboard is in an accessible place and in the appropriate position, with the ability to be easily moved out of the way, so you don’t have to twist your body or strain in any way when you switch to working with the printed material.  If it is possible for you to have a desk that is shaped to allow for sliding from one task to another, you can set up “separate” optimized work stations.

If your job entails lengthy phone conversations, try to use either speaker phone or a headset and keep the base of the phone closeby to avoid repetitive reaching.  Never hold the phone between your head and shoulder.

Regardless of how optimal your ergonomic setup is, it is not healthy to sit for prolonged periods or work in the same posture for extended periods of time.  if you are able to take a break every 1-2 hours, standing, stretching, and walking around can help reduce strain on your body while also helping you to stay more alert, optimizing productivity.

   So what are the consequences of having poor posture and/or a poorly set up work station? An illustrative example if you will... if your keyboard is set up too high, your wrists will be in extension instead of neutral; this can in turn put strain on the tissues in the carpel tunnel of your wrist while typing all day long and you may develop Carpel Tunnel Syndrome.  This can then affect your ability to continue typing, writing, using a mouse, and impair your ability to fully participate in some of your recreational activities. A second illustrative example:  If your computer monitor position/height is not optimal (too low or too high), you can strain your neck by looking down or extending your neck for prolonged periods throughout the day. This can cause pain in your neck and upper back, and can even translate down into soreness in your low back if you compensate by bending forward at your low back to see the monitor. This poor posture can then become habit during other activities in your daily life, making you more prone to injury because of it.

  Take the time to make sure that your work station is ergonomically correct for you - this will help you avoid unnecessary aches and pains while at your job and beyond. Should you have any questions regarding your ergonomic setup at work or would like to be evaluated for an injury you feel may be from a poor ergonomic setup, please feel free to call us at (630) 230-9565 or email us at info@dptsport.com.  DPT Sport is the premier physical therapy and wellness clinic in the Burr Ridge/Hinsdale area, offering evidence-based physical therapy and post-surgical rehabilitation as well as a multitude of customized wellness and injury prevention programs.