Preventing Posture-Related Problems in the Workplace

Musculoskeletal complaints related to the workplace are common and account for approximately 40 percent of worker complaints according to statistics from the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH). While some of these may be injuries associated with lifting a heavy object, many are related to overuse or repetitive motions. This includes postures that may place abnormal stresses on specific body areas or parts. The most common nontraumatic problems include neck, back or wrist/hand pain.

office postureMany of us spend many hours working at desks with computers. Often we compensate by rounding our shoulders forward as we work with the keyboard and mouse. In addition, we also move our head forward so it is no longer aligned over our shoulders and trunk. This causes muscles on the front of the trunk to shorten and those on the back to stretch out. Such postural changes can cause neck and shoulder pain. Some simple ways to reduce this risk are to get up from the desk on a regular basis, do some shoulder rolls and scapular squeezes. In addition, it is important to make sure that your computer and keyboard are positioned properly. Do not have the screen too far or too close (you may need to try different locations to see what the optimal distance is), and position the keyboard on an adaptable holder so that the keyboard is at elbow height. This allows you to rest your arms and not have to reach up, which can put extra stress on the shoulder joint.

Low back pain is another posture-related problem that can occur, especially with lots of sitting or repetitive motion. Good low back support is important. Position your chair so that both of your feet can rest flat on the floor. If you are short, you may want to get a footstool to support your feet. Newer chairs often have lumbar support built into them, but you may need to adjust the amount. Lumbar pillows can be helpful if your chair is older and does not have good lower back support. Standing desks are a newer trend that some are using to decrease sitting and the strain it can cause. There are a wide variety of these, some of which are adjustable. If you opt for a standing desk, you will still need to adjust the height so that your forearms are at approximately 90 degrees and are supported. Sustained standing postures can cause just as much discomfort as sitting.

You will need to wear supportive, comfortable shoes if you are spending long periods standing. In addition, you may want to have a small footstool that you can prop one foot on, which can help relieve stress through the low back. Alternate which foot is on the stool in order to balance the stresses. Another common posture-related complaint is wrist/hand pain, with carpal tunnel syndrome being the most prevalent cause of pain. While research shows that the biggest risks for carpal tunnel syndrome are forceful repetition of hand movements, forearm and raised palm supports have been shown to decrease the shoulder and wrist pain.

As many of the postural-related problems are related to sustained postures or
repetitive movements, it is important to change positions and move regularly. NIOSH notes that several factors interact to increase the risk of workplace-related injury, including physical fitness and body weight. Incorporate someoffice posture2 activities that help strengthen your “core” and supporting muscles. The core includes the back, hips and abdomen. Simple activities such as abdominal crunches, the “bird-dog” (quadruped with diagonal leg-arm raises) and the plank. Even doing partial squats when you are in the office and taking a break will help activate the muscles and improve circulation to the back. Remember, get up and move!

By A. Lynn Millar, PT, Ph.D., FACSM for AMERICAN COLLEGE OF SPORTS MEDICINE

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