Many of us are working from home right now, and your workspace may look a bit different than what you’re used to at the office. Maybe you’re working from the kitchen table with a hard wooden chair serving as your desk chair; maybe your alternative to the standing desk you have at work is standing at the kitchen counter even though you have to hunch a bit; maybe you’re taking advantage of working from the couch or the bed, or maybe you have an actual desk at home, but it’s not the most ergonomic setup.
No matter what your workspace may look like right now, chances are it may not be the healthiest workspace for your back, fuzzy socks and sweatpants aside. While this may not cause any pain or discomfort in the short-term, if your weeks working from home are turning more into months, with some companies extending work-from-home well into 2021, that less-than-ergonomic workstation can set you up for some back injuries down the road.
We spoke to Carson Fairbanks, M.D., an orthopedic spine surgeon on the medical staff at Texas Health Southwest Fort Worth and at Texas Health Orthopedic Specialists, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, to explain why an ergonomic desk setup is crucial, what certain discomfort or pain may be signaling you about your posture or workstation, and how to set your desk (and yourself) up for success.
“First things first, it is important to note that almost everyone will experience back pain at some point in their life,” Fairbanks explains. “Back pain episodes can range from short-lived to chronic and from very mild to very severe depending on the person. That being said, multiple studies have shown that a great deal of back pain is caused by the lack of proper posture. The way that you stand, sit and lift things on a daily basis adds up over time but a daily focus on proper ergonomics and posture also adds up in a more positive way to ward off back pain.”
Check Your Posture Regularly
Take a moment to stop reading this and check in on your posture. Are you hunched over? Are you craning your neck or straining your eyes to look at the computer screen? Are you sitting with your legs lifted up or maybe crossed underneath you? Are your shoulders hiked up by your ears? Do you feel a faint tinge of discomfort or pain anywhere in your body based on your posture right now? Do you find that you’re constantly having to change positions throughout the day to get comfortable? All of these things, and more, can mean you’re not sitting ergonomically, which can lead to pain, discomfort and injury over time.
“The most common complaint I hear is low back or neck pain that is dull and deep in nature, centered on the midline of the spine, and it tends to worsen from the start of the day to the end of the day,” Fairbanks adds. “This pain can be associated with muscular spasms which cause a more sharp and stabbing pain that is often off to the side of the spine and can come and go.”
Setting Up an Ergonomic Workspace
While you may not want to invest in creating an ergonomic workspace because of the temporary nature of working from home, or simply the expense, Fairbanks says it is possible to tweak your back or neck in a relatively short time span.
“I have personally seen patients who have used poor posture at a workplace for a relatively short time span like, two to four months, have flare-ups of chronic conditions, sprains and strains, and even irreversible back or neck problems,” he explains.
Support Your Lower Back
So what should you prioritize when setting up your workspace? Fairbanks says first things first, get yourself a good office chair that provides lumbar support, or in other terms, supports your lower back. It is important to keep your lower back in a natural, slightly arched position when seated. The easiest way to achieve this is by using lumbar supports, typically curved cushions or devices that can either be worn by the user, attached to a chair, or wedged between you and the chair to support the arch of the lower back. Many office chairs even come with lumbar support built-in, so you don’t have to worry about buying both separately. If you don’t want to make an extra purchase, Fairbanks adds that you can also use a small throw pillow to add lumbar support to any chair. It’s a cheap and less effective substitute for an ergonomic chair, but it’s better than nothing.
Hold Your Head High
Additionally, your head and shoulders should be upright and tall, not slouching, and your working surface should be at a height in which you do not have to lean backward or forward to do your work.
You should be able to view your computer screen(s) directly in front of you, not looking down or up. Also, don’t angle your screen so that you must twist your neck, which can cause neck pain. You should also read any documents, tablets or books with a straight neck. Don’t read from an iPad or papers that are flat on your table or your head will constantly have to move up and down. If you need to go back and forth between a laptop or computer screen and separate reading material, use a vertical document holder or put your tablet on a stand.
Bring Your Mouse and Keyboard Closer to You
Make sure you can use your keyboard and mouse with your forearms and hands level and straight, and make sure your arm is close to the side of your body when you use the mouse. If you have a laptop and need to raise it up to be at a good height for you, use a separate keyboard and mouse in order to achieve this setup.
But why? The nerves in your hands leave your neck and run down through the shoulder, elbow and wrist. When your arm is at your side, the nerves aren’t being compressed, but the more you stretch it out, the greater chance you have of straining your neck or shoulder.
Opt for a Standing Desk Alternative
“A sit to stand or adjustable height desk is also worth the investment,” Fairbanks adds. “By changing your workspace from sitting at a desk to standing every other hour, you can affect your spine health for the positive.”
There are plenty of options for under $100 if you’re trying to watch your budget, and many can be transferred to your desk in the future when your company begins to bring employees back into the office.
But keep in mind that just like sitting for too long can have a negative effect on your back, standing for too long can as well. It is important to change positions once per hour. It is also important to listen to your body and when you have pain or stiffness, get up, walk, stretch, and then go back to work.
Avoid the Bed or Couch
While it may be comfortable, and something you definitely can’t do from the office, it just doesn’t provide enough adequate support for your spine throughout the day, and oftentimes you have to strain your neck to look at your laptop screen.
Make Healthy Choices Outside the Workspace
As far as other things you can do daily to affect your spine health, Fairbanks says there are a multitude of lifestyle factors that are very important.
- Smoking – Tobacco use has been shown to accelerate the degeneration of the discs, bones and joints of the spine and cessation of smoking can have enormous positive effects.
- Weight loss – Being overweight puts increased pressure on the neck and low back and hastens the degeneration of the spine. This goes hand in hand with a healthy diet rich in calcium and vitamin D and protein.
- Exercise – Aerobic exercises like walking, swimming and cycling, as well as a program to strengthen your core muscles will help to support your spine and pre-empt or prevent flare-ups of back or neck pain.
- Proper lifting techniques – Stay as close to the object as possible. Ensure you have a solid base with the feet shoulder-width apart. Bed at the knees, not the back or neck. Tighten your core/stomach muscles. Lift with leg muscles, not back muscles. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for help.
Follow these tips to make your home office more ergonomically designed. The more you can work in a neutral posture, and the more you can move around, the less the chance of any injury.
Curious about your spine health? Take the Back Health Assessment to measure your back pain or visit YourBackHealth.com for more information.