CINCINNATI—Have you checked your posture lately? Not paying attention to how you sit in an office chair while staring at a computer screen may be causing your aches and pains during the work day, especially if you don’t take sufficient breaks.
The back is a major culprit in the pain game. Improper posture in the office can not only make someone uncomfortable, but it could also lead to more serious problems such as herniated discs in the neck or lower back.
Workers are often so focused on their tasks that they forget to practice proper posture, failing to recognize early warning signs like aching, cramping, tingling or weakness. Poor posture can be further compromised by spending three to four hours working without taking a break.
"I think there are many factors that go into the best working posture, but it all relates to the body dimensions of the individuals and the adjustability of the workstation,” says Kermit Davis, PhD, associate professor of environmental health.
Davis says the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides excellent basic information on proper computer workstation posture. According to OSHA, there is no single "correct” posture or arrangement of components that will fit everyone.
OSHA offers some basic components for proper posture and a checklist that allows one to determine if a workstation fits. Generally, your head and neck should be vertical and in line with the spine, your torso should be straight, forearms and thighs should stay parallel to the ground and feet should be firmly planted to support the body and allow for frequent changes in posture.
OSHA offers other supportive postures that provide neutral positioning for the body with figures on its website.
Even with good posture, long periods of working in the same position or sitting can still produce pain and discomfort. Changing positions throughout the day and moving around can help, based on a recent study by Davis and his colleagues.
"Based on a study we conducted on call center workers, I would recommend taking breaks at least every 30 minutes where you should get up out of your chair and move around, which significantly improved how you felt at the end of the day,” says Davis. "These breaks do not have to be non-productive time. You can take a restroom break, deliver a document or continue working while standing.”
When taking a break, stretching your fingers, hands, arms and torso can help. Davis says moving around has been shown to be effective in reducing pain while actually slightly increasing productivity.
"Movement allows the blood to be pumped in and out of the muscles and other structures, removing waste products and other substances that result in discomfort while replenishing the blood and oxygen.”
According to the OSHA, performing the same motions repeatedly at a fast pace and with little variation may leave inadequate time for muscles and tendons to recover. Combining repetitive tasks with factors such as awkward postures and force may increase the risk of injury. Interspersing a variety of tasks throughout the day can significantly reduce injury risks.
Body position is not the only factor when avoiding pain—workstation equipment plays a vital role, too.
An office chair should provide full back support with appropriate lumbar support when its occupant is sitting vertical or leaning slightly back. The monitor should be low enough so its top is not above the horizontal line of sight; this will limit the need to tilt your head. The keyboard and mouse should be in reachable distances so you do not have to strain using either device and in positions where contact stress is limited, oftentimes through the use of keyboard and mouse trays.
Regarding exercises to limit the pain, Davis says the evidence is not there to show its benefit.
"I am not a big fan of exercises since they have been shown to have limited success on reducing pain.”
Stick with making sure your workstation fits you and is properly adjusted, and take routine breaks. Then your workday back pain should improve.
This story was written and reported by Robert Lisiecki, an intern in the AHC Public Relations and Communications Office. For media interviews, please contact Amanda Harper.