Many of my patients have been working from home since the COVID-19 outbreak. This has resulted in an increase of neck pain, back pain, neck tension, and all-around tight muscles. Why? Ergonomics! This blog is going to cover: what ergonomics means, why ergonomics is important, how ergonomics work, ergonomics when working from home, ergonomics with a laptop, and how to fix bad ergonomics. If working from home or sitting behind a desk all day is causing you problems, this blog is for you.
What Does Ergonomics Means?
Ergonomics is defined as the study of people’s efficiency in their working environment. There is a whole industry that works to design products to minimize discomfort in the workplace to improve production. Not all of these products are necessary to maximize your workspace, but the concept is what matters.
An understanding of posture and what good posture is supposed to look like is very important when it comes to ergonomics. It’s essentially practicing good posture when sitting at a desk, good posture when typing, and good posture when sitting/presenting in meetings all day. So why is all this important?
Why Ergonomics is Important?
As a business owner, the fewer aches and pains your employees have the more they can enjoy and focus on their work and produce good outcomes. Good ergonomics can minimize workers’ compensation cases and improve/maintain the overall health of your employees. Who wouldn’t want this in their business?
You should care about your own ergonomics for the same exact reasons! Your health is important, and whether or not you realize it, your work environment has a huge impact on your health. Less neck pain, less back pain, and less hip pain all from moving some things around at the office to improve your posture.
You want to work better, work happier, and have less tension and pain? Here’s how it works..
Bad Ergonomics and Pain
Your workspace can be contributing to your pains, but it can also be causing them. Let’s say you have a chair with elbow rests. You either park your elbows there all day while you type away, or your elbows get tucked in-between the rests and your body. This is a lose-lose situation. If your elbows remain on the rests, this typically results in hyper-activation of your upper trap ( you know, that spot of tension you always want to be squeezed between your neck and shoulder). If your elbows get stuck squeezed in at your side, they don’t get the range of motion they need. This results in tight/short muscles which can become painful over time, and it won’t end at your elbow. If your elbows can’t move, your shoulders are given the same fate. This eventually can translate all the way to the neck pain.
The whole body is connected and whichever structure is directly experiencing the damage, the structures above and below it will be impacted negatively. Bad ergonomics can result in shoulder pain, hip pain, knee pain, back pain, and neck pain!
For example, if your computer screen is positioned low enough that your neck is constantly flexed downward, this will cause some problems. The muscles in the front, side, and back of your neck all work together to keep your head balanced on top of your body. This constant state of neck flexion over time will result in hypertension of muscles on the front, and exhausted/ overstretched muscles on the back. Because the muscles on the back of your neck are trying to bring your neck back into the proper posture, you have tension and your neck hurts. You feel like you need a massage. The issue is that a message won’t help when you go back to doing the same thing day after day. But here’s what will..
How Does Ergonomics Work?
Understanding posture and how the human body works, we can set you (literally) up for success. The easy solution to the scenario above would be to prop up your monitor ( if necessary) to eye level. This can be done using anything! I prefer old textbooks, but the possibilities are endless. Your monitor is only one of the many things that can be wrong with your ergonomics.
The main things you need to evaluate include:
- Computer Monitor
Now, what exactly are you looking for? Well, we mentioned the computer monitor set-up above. Too low is what I commonly see, but your monitor can also be too high. You shouldn’t have to hold your chin up or tuck it down to be looking at your screen. Here are a few things to note:
- Sit all the way to the back of your seat.
- Knees are to be slightly higher than the hip level.
- Feet flat on the ground- if needed, use a stool to assure this.
- Fill in the gap in your lower back with a support .
- Elbows relaxed and by your SIDE- DO NOT squeeze them by your side.
- Elbows and wrists are to be at the same level and parallel to the ground
- Use a big keyboard so you don’t squeeze your elbows close to you to type
- Do not click on the keyboard keys hard
For a full list of things to look out for to ensure your workspace is set-up to minimize pain or discomfort check out this Ergonomic Awareness Check-List.
Please note that having all the trending highly-priced products out there that are marketed as “ergonomic” does not ensure good ergonomics, especially if you are not using them correctly. For example, the sit to stand desk is a great investment but it doesn’t do you very good if you’re not using it properly. In the video below I point out the most common mistakes made when using a sit to stand desk and how you should be using it!
Ergonomics When Working From Home?
Ergonomics does not only apply to the work office space but your home workspace as well! Many people are realizing this as the work from home mandate prolongs ( I know my patients are starting to feel the pain!). Working from home can be a little different given that not everyone has a home office to work with, but the same rules still apply.
Hopefully, you are not working with a laptop because they are really not good for you. If you have no other choice, you’re going to need a few things:
- Bluetooth Keyboard and Mouse
- Something to prop-up your laptop to eye level
- A chair that is fit to the table you are using
Here are some tips when working from home:
- Do NOT use your coffee table and couch as your workplace
- Take frequent breaks to get up and move
- Lay down on the floor with your knees bent and roll a towel behind your neck to support the curve of your neck
- Keep your shoulder blades flat on your mid-back and be aware if you’re overworking your pecs
Why Do I Have Neck tension When Using My Laptop?
This is a great question and one that most of us can relate to. You have to understand that looking at a laptop, phone, or iPad (or versions of it) all require the bending of the head over the neck at the base of the neck. Over time, those muscles are overstretched, and just as with any rubber band or anything flexible that is not designed to be stretched constantly, those muscles will get weak over time. The end result is the forward neck movement or anterior neck, and the undue tension in the muscles just below the base of the neck which now has to do the other muscles’ job of holding the head in the right position.
Obviously, if those muscles were to do more than their jobs, they would have been given that job at birth! Just as you can do your job and if need be, occasionally pick up the task of a coworker, you will not be happy doing multiple jobs all the time. The end result when it comes to your neck is headaches, tension in the neck, lack of finding a comfortable position to sleep, and overall feeling restless.
Add this deviation from the norm over time and it will be chaotic. The part of the brain that is in charge of movement and posture ends up re-writing its ‘map’, called Homunculus. Now the problem becomes much deeper than you think. It is as if you attend a symphony but the conductor does not have the right notes in from of him.
If movement is a concert, the muscles, ligaments, joints and bones are the musicians; they not only need to know what their part is, but also, chime in when it is called for. Lack of proper timing will make the concert sound like a tuning session. This is what Functional Movement and Postural Neurology is all about which are explained fully on my website and here are the two videos to watch.
I hope that you see the impact of Ergonomics on your movement and you see how something as benign as it seems can do major damage over time and cause misery over life.