Right now, reading this story even, you could gradually be giving yourself a real pain in the neck—or shoulder, or elbow, or wrist. The standard computer workstation can pose a minefield of ergonomic hazards simply from the way we type, read off our monitor, answer the phone, or perform other required work functions.
Jackie Agnew, an environmental health professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of the Johns Hopkins Education and Research Center for Occupational Safety and Health, says that how we position ourselves and our equipment can lead to a host of debilitating work-related musculoskeletal disorders, including tendonitis, bursitis, nerve compression (carpal tunnel syndrome), and back pain. Agnew says these health issues are not often the result of trauma but rather the cumulative effect of repetitive movements and improper positioning of limbs.
"People will have pain and numbness at night and not realize it's because of their actions during the day," Agnew says.
Rather than changing your behavior, Agnew advocates changing the design of your workstation. "People often will go right back to what is most efficient for them, so the key is changing the environment," she says.
Here are some ergonomic tips for better workstation/desk posture:
Feet should be supported and flat on the floor, with hips angled slightly more than 90 degrees. Shorter people might require an adjustable chair and footstool to achieve the desired position, which reduces pressure on the spine. "You want to sit with a normal, straight posture."
Monitor placement—both its height and distance away from you—is key. Some recommend raising your monitor—whether you sit or use a standing desk—so that your eyes are level with the top third of the screen, and no more than hand's length away. You want to look straight downward, and avoid bending your neck. "It should be like you're reading a book."
Avoid pressure points. Elbows should be bent at a 90-degree angle and forearms should be horizontal to the desk, a position that might require that you raise your chair's elbow rests, or adjust the height of your seat or desk. Wrists should be in a neutral, straight position. Keyboard trays are effective in keeping the height of your elbows aligned with the keys.
Consider arm's length. Limit the degree of reach to your phone, mouse, or other items you use often.
Your chair's backrest should support the natural curve of the lower back. Or consider a standing desk, which is becoming increasingly popular.
Get up and stretch. Take a break every 30 minutes or so, which might mean a walk to the kitchen or down the hall—or just stand up. Not only can you avoid musculoskeletal issues, but a recent study in Australia found that participants who spent more time standing and moving in the course of a week had lower levels of blood sugar and cholesterol.
"With workstations, the horse might already be out of the barn if the person already has elbow pain or hand pain," Agnew says. "But some simple preventive measures like these can keep you healthy and more productive."