Rajeev Rajagopal is the owner of Managed Outsource Solutions which runs its digital marketing division through MedResponsive since 2003.
With lockdowns and social distancing recommendations, rooms and spaces in millions of homes across the globe have been transformed into workplaces. Computers, e-readers, smartphones and tablets along with fast broadband internet make working from home easy. However, prolonged hours at the desk, unergonomic furniture, and poor tech habits can cause postural stress and musculoskeletal disorders or repetitive strain injuries (RSIs). RSIs are injuries that are the result of stress placed on muscles, nerves and tendons due to repetitive movement and overuse, leading to pain and swelling.
Does working on the computer affect men and women differently? Yes, according to a study by Blatter and Bongers (2002). Their study on work-related musculoskeletal discomfort due to computer use found that computer work of more than 6 hours a day was associated with musculoskeletal symptoms in all regions of the male body, and computer work of more than 4 hours per day led to musculoskeletal problems in women.
Recent reports indicate that the work from home movement has increased the incidence of RSIs such as low back pain, wrist pain, neck pain, and other issues. In the majority of cases, not paying attention to posture habits and lack of exercise are the main culprits.
- Low back pain: If you don’t have a work desk at home, you are probably using a regular table or kitchen countertop, resulting in an incorrect sitting position when working on a computer. Some people even work on their laptop sitting in bed! Slouching, slumping on your chair or couch, sitting too long, leaning forward, and lack of a proper desk setup stress the body and cause back pain. The spine is made up of 33 vertebrae with jelly-like discs in between that create space for the bones to move as you bend or turn your body. The muscles in the area work with the brain to coordinate movement. Putting stress on any of these structures can cause back pain. For instance, leaning forward puts a lot of pressure on the vertebrae.
- Get your body into a neutral position. Set up your home office furniture and equipment so that don’t need to lean forward to see your computer screen and strain your back.
- See that your screen is directly before you. Your feet should be flat on the floor in front of you.
- Make sure your back gets support – you can put a towel or a small pillow behind your back to preserve the natural inward curve of your lower back.
- Take and break and walk around every two hours or so. This can ease stiffness and tension in the spine.
- If you experience back pain, lying flat on your back once or twice a day may help ease the discomfort.
- Make time for exercise. Do exercises that can help strengthen your spine.
2. Wrist pain: Continuous typing on a laptop keyboard puts excessive stress on the hands and wrists, especially if they are not in a proper position and bent left or right. It causes tingling, numbness and pain in the hands. Two medical conditions can cause hand and wrist pain: De Quervain’s tenosynovitis (a type of tendonitis) and carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). While tenosynovitis affects the tendons on the thumb side of the wrist, CTS puts pressure on the median nerve and causes numbness, tingling and pain the fingers. According to the Centers for Disease Control And Prevention, CTS affects 1.9 million Americans. CTS pain usually gets worse at night.
- Choose a mouse that fits comfortably in the palm of your hand.
- Consider using an ergonomically designed keyboard that is separate from your laptop.
- Set up your monitor, mouse and keyboard so that they are in alignment with your body.
- Ideally, the keyboard should be positioned slightly lower than the height of your elbows and a little sloped away from your body.
- Sit up straight.
- When typing, make sure your wrists and forearm straight and flat or in a neutral position. If your seating position is correct, your arms will be bent at 90 degrees.
- Take breaks from typing – set a timer to remind you when to stand up and move around.
3. Neck and shoulder pain: Bad posture when you sit at a computer is when you round your upper back and shoulders, and hunch forward. Sitting like this results in poor alignment, puts a great deal of stress on the neck and shoulder muscles, and causes pain. And this new normal of working from home is also exacerbating “text neck” – the term used to describe stress injury and pain caused when you constantly bend your head to text and look down at your smartphone screen.
- The golden rule applies in this case too – maintain your body in a neutral position with your feet firmly and flat on the ground.
- See that the top of your computer screen is level with your eyes.
- Keep your shoulders relaxed and in a natural position. Avoid hunching or leaning forwards.
- When reading messages on your phone, hold it at eye level or look down with your eyes rather than bend your head.
- Download a posture app. These apps are designed to send users notifications about their posture.
- Do neck and shoulder rolls and stretching exercises.
- Cut down on texting!
Computer Ergonomics Checklist
Use this checklist to evaluate if you have a working set-up at home that ensures optimal comfort and good ergonomics:
- Screen at an arm's length in front of you at eye level
- Keyboard centered in front of you and at your fingertips
- Mouse fits comfortably in the palm of your hand
- Keyboard and mouse at the same level
- Mouse placed on the side that is comfortable to you
- If using a laptop, it is placed on a table or desk that is at elbow height
- Laptop has separate monitor and keyboard
- Head, neck and wrist in neutral position
- Have elbow and arm support
- Forearms form a 90-degree angle with your upper arm
- Forearms parallel with the thighs
- Elbow close to the body and arm relaxed while using the mouse
- Feet comfortably placed in the front of the chair
- Sit symmetrically
- Seat centered to the keyboard
- Chair adjusted to sit in a reclined position
- Height of chair adjusted to use the keyboard and mouse properly
- Sufficient lighting is available and there is no glare
- All frequently used things are placed next to you
Exercise can Make a Difference
The best way to prevent strain while working on a computer is to incorporate exercise into your work and daily living routines. Here is a list of exercises for the back, neck, shoulders, and wrists that you can do at your computer:
- Lower Back Stretch: Stay seated and slowly bend your spine, bringing your upper body down between your knees. Hold for 3 to 5 seconds, and then sit up and relax.
- Upper Back Stretch – Keep your arms folded in front of you and then raise them to shoulder height. Push your elbows straight back and hold for a few seconds. You will feel a good stretch in your shoulder blades. Do this stretch 5 to 10 times.
Neck and Shoulders
- Neck Flexion Stretch: Keep your arms at the side of your body. Bring your shoulder blades back and down and slowly bring your chin towards your chest. Hold for 15-30 secs and repeat 2-4 times
- Neck Rotation: Rotate your head slowly to one side and look over your shoulder. Hold the position for 20-30 seconds. Repeat on the opposite side. Do this neck stretch 2-4 times.
- Shoulder Rotation: Perform shoulder circles in reverse directions.
- Shoulder Blade Retraction: Pull your shoulders together towards the spine.
- Side to Side Head Rotation: Turn your head gently so that your chin moves towards your right shoulder, then repeat for left. Press your hand against the side of your head.
- Chin Tuck: Look straight ahead, keeping your shoulders relaxed. Move your chin inward, without tilting your neck up or down.
- Shoulder Shrug: Slowly bring your shoulders up toward your ears, hold for a few seconds, and bring them down.
Hands and Wrists
- Wrist Flexor Stretch: Keeping elbows on the desk, use left hand to gently bend right hand back toward forearm till you feel a stretch on the underside of wrist. Hold for a few seconds, relax, and repeat on the other side.
- Finger Stretch: Extend both hands with palms facing downward. Extend fingers as far apart as possible, hold, clench fists and release.
Thanks to today’s advanced technologies, the work from home arrangement is ensuring business continuity during this public health emergency. A recent Gartner report indicates that home offices may become a permanent thing, which means that it’s critical to get the ergonomics right. One worrisome thing about work-related musculoskeletal injuries is that they sneak up on you slowly. You don’t have to invest in a costly office furniture or equipment – just properly position your desk, chair, monitor and phone. Maintain proper posture, take regular breaks throughout the day, and find time to do some exercises to reduce stress and stay fit.
If you do experience ongoing back, wrist or neck pain, consider getting ergonomic assessments via telemedicine.
There are many therapies to overcome work-related musculoskeletal discomfort due to prolonged sitting. Early treatment can prevent the condition from becoming chronic.