Since many of you are now working from home and may be doing so for an extended or unknown amount of time, you need to take into consideration the quality of your at-home work station. Many of you were probably trying to get by with what you already had at home in terms of a desk and chair. And many have made the couch and coffee table or the kitchen island into their home office. Now, after a month or two of that, you are suffering the consequences… neck, mid-back, low back, shoulder and scapular pain, headaches, and even pinched nerves with arm or leg pain due to poor posture and lack of support from a proper desk, chair, and work station. I know that space and even resources might be limited at home, but you need to set up a space that will minimize the aggravation on the body due to long hours of sitting and staring at the computer screen.
Prolonged sitting, in general, is bad for you. Even if your posture is perfect and you have the best and most supportive chair on the market. Your body is sedentary and stagnant while sitting and a great amount of pressure is put on all regions of the spine while in the sitting position. When there is a lack of support, everything has to work harder. The upper back and shoulder areas have to support the head and neck, creating muscle fatigue and leading to poor posture. Poor posture eliminates proper spinal alignment and creates a great deal of axial pressure and downward stress that is translated to the lumbar spine. This will lead to muscle imbalance, vertebral misalignment, intervertebral disc pressure, spinal nerve irritation, and then ultimately… PAIN!
So how do you set up an ergonomically sound home office without spending a fortune? The key is to try and create a work station that is spinal neutral. This includes a desk and chair that protects and supports your body’s natural spinal curves and allows muscles of the neck, upper back, mid-back, shoulders, scapula, and low back to be relaxed and supported.
Let’s start with the desk. Ideally your desk height shouldn’t be too high as to cause you to constantly shrug your shoulders or raise your elbows and forearms to use the keyboard or mouse. It should allow your shoulders to be relaxed and supported creating a 90-degree angle or slightly downward presentation at the elbow joint and a neutral presentation of the wrist. You never want too much extension or upward angle of the wrist as this has the ability to aggravate the nerve in the wrist and cause carpal tunnel syndrome. The chair height will be important in all these areas as well and we will get to that a little later. The computer screen also has to be raised or lowered in order to keep your neck in a neutral position. You want the screen to be directly eye level so you will be looking straight ahead and not up or down. This will keep your head and neck in the most neutral position. Easy ways to raise your computer screen and desk if needed, are using books, reams of paper, wooden blocks, or whatever you can find. Sometimes you have to get pretty creative in situations like this!
Now your chair. Obviously you want something supportive. A firm base, a decent amount of cushion, and a good back with some lumbar or low back support are ideal. Armrests can be useful as long as they don’t prohibit you from getting close enough to your desk so you aren’t constantly reaching or leaning forward. If you have some sort of office chair or you will continue to use the old kitchen chair, make sure there is enough lumbar support. Use a pillow, blanket, or towel and roll it up and put it between the back of the chair and your lower back to support your lumbar curve. By doing this you will automatically improve your upper back and neck posture as a result of supporting the lumbar spine. Make sure your chair is the proper height. Your hip joints and knee joints should both be flexed at 90 degrees while sitting when the chair is the proper height. Cut the legs down or build a platform to put your chair on to alter the height. Sitting on an exercise ball can help improve posture but slowly incorporate this into your workday by rotating its usage throughout the day using it more and more each week. Otherwise, your body will not have the needed stability from the start and its use will be counter-productive.
These are a couple of ways that you can ease the stress on your body and especially your spine and its supporting musculature without going out and spending a fortune on a state of the art standup desk and chair. That being said, you should always try to set a timer and get up and move every 30 minutes, even if you do have the best desk and chair money can buy. If time permits, walk around the house and stretch your upper back, neck, shoulders, low back, hip flexors, quads, and hamstrings throughout the day. Strengthening your core muscles with planking and bridging exercises and strengthening your mid to upper back and neck muscles with pulling or rowing exercises will help limit and prolong muscle fatigue that causes pain. The stronger these muscles are, the longer it will take for them to fatigue causing poor posture and pain. Remember to sit up straight, with your head up and your shoulders back as much as possible. Stay off the couch and the bed at all costs when it comes to your work station! And again, get up and move throughout the workday as much as possible!