How to Avoid Back Pain at a Desk Job
In my clinic I see people from all walks of life, sports people, doctors, teachers, call centre workers, retirees but almost all of the work I do is massage for back pain. Apart from specific injuries/accidents, the one thing they all have in common is back, shoulder, neck or arm issues that are related to sitting too much, and the set up of the desk while they are there. Even people like myself who’s jobs would appear to be nowhere near a desk, can still spend a fair amount of time at a computer.
Unfortunately most jobs these days involve sitting a lot.
For hours at a time.
With a mouse to one side, a keyboard in front of you and a chair that is the same as every one else’s in the office, because everyone’s back and body is the same aren’t they?
Hmmm, no, everyone’s bodies are different, and in an ideal world we would all have unique set ups for desks, plus there would be obligatory ‘get up and move around’ sessions (dance breaks I think they are called) every 30 minutes.
I used to work in an open plan office of about 300 people, the idea of them all getting up and doing stretches every 30 minutes, while amusing, is never going to happen.
So what can you do to help yourself, and avoid the aches and pains that seem to be a part of modern life?
Firstly we need to look at the set up of your desk.
- Do you work with a laptop and end up hunching over it? You can get platforms to raise it up, or just use a few books. Then you need a separate keyboard (like this one) so you are not having to awkwardly use the laptop one. If you are using the laptop away from a desk, then you can also get folding stands and angled supports to make life more comfortable. I work with a laptop at home, but have a separate monitor like this and a bluetooth keyboard.
- Even if you have a standard computer, you can still adjust monitor height and keyboard position so that you are able to sit better. The diagram below shows the ideal positions.
- Mouse – Ah, the mouse, I think I might be out of business if everyone stopped using these things, or at least started using them in a more back/shoulder friendly fashion. Most of the time people find themselves stretching out to the side to use their mouse, meaning that their arm is unsupported and in a strained position.
You can see in the picture, the arm should be kept in and angled but most keyboards are too long so the mouse is forced out to the side. What can you do about this, as it seems a pretty standard set up?
You can get a shorter keyboard (without number pad) which would help bring it in a bit. Or you can go for one of the various alternatives to the standard mouse. They come in a range of shapes and actions, but many will eventually cause their own set of issues.
Which is the same for the standard Occupational Health advice in my old office which was to ‘use the mouse in the left hand’. Because my weaker arm won’t get strained due to over use will it! (rolls eyes). I had RSI in my old IT job, it’s one of the reasons I discovered remedial massage and ended up changing job, and I was given a fair few of the mouse alternatives to try. Eventually a new OH woman came along and she basically flipped the ‘alternative mouse catalogue’ to the back, and said that the rest were pointless and we should all just have one of THESE. More expensive than the other options, but the only thing that truly works in my experience.
I had one in the office and when I left I bought one for my home computer, it’s still going strong 10 years on with daily use, whereas the other options would have been replaced several times over by now. So, actually a good economic option.
I recommend these to everyone with RSI and a few clients have got them and also not looked back. There are a few time when I do need a mouse, (when I make images in Canva for example) so I have a little wireless one sitting on my desk, ready for use when I need it. When I do use it I always shove my keyboard out the way and use it directly in front of me to avoid the dreaded arm strain.
- Chair – since you can easily spend 6-9 hours of the day sat in the chair it should be the best chair for you. Unfortunately most offices buy their chairs in bulk and it is one size fits all. Now, they do have a duty of care, so if you have a back issue then you should be able to get a different chair (as with the mouse), but it can be difficult to get the right one. If you do have a say in which chair you get, or you work from home, then most people swear by Herman Miller chairs. But, yes they are a tad on the expensive side! However, you don’t need to spend eye watering amounts but you do need to have a seat with –
– adjustable height so you can get your feet on the floor (or if you are a smaller person, you may need a foot rest to allow you to have your feet on something solid);
– adjustable arms i.e ones that go up and down or fold out the way so you can get the chair close into the desk;
– a lumbar support which you can adjust to your back, or you can get add ons to chairs which allow you to do this
– a good supportive seat which is comfortable for you.
If you want a helpful tool to work out your ideal position for your desk set up, try this online tool – https://www.ergotron.com/tools/workspace-planner
So now we have you set up properly, what else can you do to avoid the stiffness and risk of back/neck/shoulder issues?
Because it’s all very well having the correct set up, but we are still not designed to sit all day, so we need to look after our bodies as well as our desk position.
The best thing is to not sit all day.
Get up and move around, every hour at least, every half hour in an ideal world. Even just a few minutes to walk to the toilet, get a drink of water, and go the long way round if you can. The worst thing you can do is stay in one position for several hours.
There has been a lot of talk about standing desks lately, I know a few folk that have them. And yes they are good, especially the ones that allow you to sit and then stand up, they adjust with you, but really standing all day is not the answer either. Some people sit on gym balls, again it’s an option especially for home based workers, but I doubt it is something that is going to catch on in offices. I have a pad for my seat which is the equivalent of siting on a gym ball, and that is good, it certainly makes my core work (which helps my lower back strength and posture), but I don’t sit on it all day, perhaps a couple of hours at a time at most. I still need to get up and move around if I want to avoid sitting related back and shoulder strains.
Finally, while you are sitting, you can do stretches at your desk to help your body cope, you can also do stretches before or after work, at lunchtime, whenever you get the chance. I recommend yoga or pilates classes to most of my clients who don’t already do them. Even once a week will help you become more aware of where you are stiff and it will encourage you to stretch or do some of what you learn in class at home.
You can download a PDF of some basic desk stretches here to get you started.
There are also apps available to remind you to move, or to take you through a set of desk based stretches. This one is good for both eye strain/breaks AND stretches.