Sometimes the simplest things can make all the difference….

I want to share with you some top tips for looking after yourself if you sit for long periods of time at a computer or laptop. I’m hoping, in so doing, not to entirely put myself out of business, but I am prepared to lose a few of you all for the greater good!

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Do you have a niggly back, neck or shoulder pain that comes and goes for no apparent reason? Maybe it has been this way for perhaps weeks, months or years? Maybe you have had treatment for it in the past, which helped at the time but then weeks or months later you find the same problem gradually starting to re-appear? Perhaps you have concluded that the treatment you had was good, but only worked temporarily?

Maybe so, but maybe not. Maybe the treatment did fully resolve the symptoms, but you have since, unwittingly, caused the problem to re-occur by some of the simple things you do in your everyday life.  

This is where Ergonomics comes in. I recently attended a very good course on this subject at the University College of Osteopathy, presented by David Annett, Chartered Ergonomist and Osteopath. There are many definitions for ergonomics, but the one I like best is, ‘Designing a good fit between a person and their workstation, equipment and environment, in order to optimize human wellbeing and overall system performance’.

Here are a few tips from the course for how to make your computer workstation a safer place to be.

One of the most common type of problem that I see in my practice, that might be avoided with a few simple adjustments is neck, shoulder and back pain caused by a bad desk set up at work. This is becoming an ever more common problem since home working and ‘hot desking’ is on the increase.

But the good news it, it’s not always about cost; often it’s about making the most of what you already have. For instance, most chairs will adjust in terms of height, backrest angle and tension of the backrest but often these functions are not being fully used, so before going out and buying any new office furniture, first make sure that you are using what you already have to its full advantage. 

Explore your chair! 

Find all the levers and knobs and experiment with them. First adjust the height of your chair so that with your shoulders relaxed, your forearms are roughly horizontal on the desk. At this height, where does this leave your legs? Your feet should be able to rest comfortably on the floor. If they are dangling, then you need a footrest. (Look for one that is not too narrow, has an adjustable height and tilt and is non-slip, particularly if it is to be used on a hard floor). If your feet reach the floor comfortably, then check the height of your knees. Your thighs, like your forearms, should also be horizontal, so make sure your knees are not higher than your hips. If they are, then you need to raise the height of your seat. Do this until your thighs are horizontal but now check your forearms again. Are they still horizontal as they rest on the desk? If not, then your desk is too low. If a change of desk is not an option, does it have the facility to raise its height or do you need to stand the legs on some blocks of wood or maybe some reams of paper? 

How close is close enough?

You should be able to pull your chair in close enough to your desk so that the edge of the desk is almost touching your tummy. If the arms of the chair prevent this, just get a screwdriver and remove the arms! Better to be without armrests than to have your chair too far away from your desk otherwise you will be overreaching all the time you sit at your desk, setting yourself up for a repetitive strain injury. 

Take it easy!

If you have an adjustment for your backrest, experiment with that too. Most office chairs allow you to recline the backrest. There is also often a knob that can be twisted to alter the amount of tension in the back rest. Tension is important. This is how hard you need to lean back in your chair to make the backrest recline. If the tension is too tight, it will take conscious effort to recline and so you will do it less often. This means the weight of your body is always going through the same part of the disc (the rubbery part of your spine in between each vertebra), which will add stress to the discs, predisposing you to disc problems. Less tension in the backrest means more regular, unconscious changing of position, which gives the part of your disc that you have been weightbearing through a small breather, which can be enough to allow it to re-plump or re-set, so to speak.  

Your desk and what’s on it.

Your computer screen should be roughly an arm’s length away as you sit with your chair comfortably pulled in and the top of the screen should be at eye level.

Try different arrangements of keyboard, screen, mouse, telephone and any documents to find the best arrangement for you. Those that get used the most should be within easy reach. A document holder may help you to avoid awkward neck and eye movements.  If you spend a lot of time on the phone, consider using a headset. Holding the phone to your ear using your shoulder is never ok!  

Keep on moving.

A really useful piece of equipment is a sit-stand desk. This allows you to divide your time between sitting and standing while you work. As a guide, aim to stand for 10 minutes in every hour. However, if you know, for instance, that you normally get pain after 40 minutes, then change position after 30 minutes. Easy to use and relatively cheap versions of these consist of a height adjustable platform that sits on your existing desk with your keyboard, mouse and monitor on top of it. When you wish to stand for a while, a simple adjustment raises the platform and up with it goes your whole workstation…genius!  

The possibilities are endless, well at least they are far too many to all be included in this blog. There are masses of useful pieces of equipment out there and many of them are quite inexpensive: Apps to remind you to take regular breaks; compact keyboards, which allow you to position your mouse within an easier reach; anti-glare screens for monitors to prevent eyestrain; mice of all different shapes and sizes and prism style spectacles to avoid holding your neck in an uncomfortable position while you work at activities such as embroidery and knitting….yes, ergonomics stretches far beyond the computer workstation!


For further information here are a few useful websites to browse: