Ergonomics Basics for Your Home Office

Office ergonomics: How to set up your computer to minimize back pain.

Do you have an achy back? Tech neck? Sore knees? 

The problem – yes, even the sore knees – could be related to working at your computer or using your cell phone frequently.

Ergonomics usually isn’t top of mind when people start to work at home. But it should be.

According to Spine Health, sitting in an office chair for long periods of time increases the pressure on your back muscles and the discs in your spine. Bad posture, such as slumping down in your chair or leaning in or down to look at a screen can exasperate the problems by overstretching ligaments.

What about your neck pain? Your head is heavy. In fact, the average human head weighs between 10 and 11 pounds. Sitting too straight, or looking down at tech devices such as a cell phone, a tablet or a laptop screen, stresses the neck muscles that hold your head. That results in the neck pain, a problem that’s been dubbed tech neck.

And your knees? Why would they hurt from sitting too long?  According to Noyes Knee Institute, inactivity weakens the knees and can lead to arthritis and other problems.

While you probably can’t avoid using tech devices for extended periods of time, there are things you can do to reduce the stresses on your body, and your pain. Here are several.

Choose the right office chair

Your kitchen or dining room chair may be nice for eating meals, but if you’re working from home, it’s not what you should be using for sitting at a computer for any length of time. It’s too hard, doesn’t have lumbar support, doesn’t roll or tilt and you can’t adjust the height. Most don’t have arm rests.

What you should use is an office chair that you can adjust to your needs.  If you’re buying a new chair, be sure that can adjust the height of the chair and the height of the arm rests.  You should be able to adjust the arm rests so that your arms rest comfortably on them without raising or lowering your shoulders.

The chair should have lumbar support and should also allow you to tilt it to different angles. It should roll and swivel easily as well.  The seat should be comfortable and not too narrow or wide for your legs. Beware: of those nice comfy-looking leather office chairs. Many of them aren’t right for working at a computer for hours on end. And on some, the seats are too deep and the arm rests too high for people who aren’t tall.

Sit correctly in the chair

Your chair should be adjusted so your feet are flat on the floor with knees level with your hips. If your feet dangle, get a footrest. If your knees are higher than your hips, raise the height of the chair.  Don’t bend forward in your chair while you’re working.

Contrary to what you think, you shouldn’t sit perfectly straight in the chair all the time. According to doctor K. Daniel Riew, you should use a chair with good lumbar support and lean back at an angle of 25 to 30 degrees as much as you can while you’re working.  Doing so relieves the stresses on your neck muscles and takes some of your body weight off the base of your spine.

Adjust your monitor height and distance

An ergonomic chair won’t do you a lot of good if your monitor isn’t positioned correctly.

The monitor height should be adjusted so that the main viewing area on the screen is level with or slightly down from your eyes. If the screen is too low, raise it up with a stand. If it’s too high, lower it or raise the height of your chair.

Your computer screen should be at a distance that you can read it without squinting or leaning in close to the monitor. Usually that’s between 15 and 27 inches from your face, but the proper monitor distance will vary depending on the size of your screen and other factors. If you have trouble reading the screen without leaning in, increase the screen font size. If you haven’t had an eye exam recently, get one.

Use an ergonomic mouse and keyboard

Look for a mouse or keyboard and mouse combination that is ergonomically designed. There are various types of ergonomic mice. The one that works best for you is whichever fits best under your hand without making your fingers stretch uncomfortably. Wireless mice are more convenient to use than wired.  A useful addition is a mousepad with a gel wrist rest. Using the mouse with the base of your hand on the rest can help keep your hand and wrist in a neutral position while using the mouse.

The keyboard you use is important too. Some studies say flat keyboards are the best ergonomically because they keep your wrists relatively straight.  But if they are too flat, they can be difficult or uncomfortable to type on. A keyboard with a built-in rest for the base of your hands can make typing less stressful if you have enough room for it.

As with computer monitors, the position of the keyboard and mouse are important ergonomic factors.  Both should be positioned so you can use them with your elbows bent so that your arms are parallel to the floor. A desk with a pull-out keyboard tray is best for positioning the keyboard and monitor properly.  The keyboard tray should be wide enough for your keyboard and your mouse. You do not want to have to reach to a desktop or stretch in any other way to use the mouse. Doing so can strain your wrist.

A wrist rest can help protect your wrist from strain when you use a mouse frequently. Test several different styles at a local store to find the best wrist rest for your needs.

Make your laptop more ergonomic

What if your primary (or only) computer is a laptop?

Fortunately there are some accessories that can help.  

  • A standalone monitor. Hooking your laptop up to a standalone monitor will let you position your monitor at the right height and distance from your eyes.Before purchasing a standalone monitor, be sure your laptop has a port to plug it into.
  • A laptop riser or stand. This will let you raise the laptop up so the screen can be viewed without bending your neck downward. 
  • A standalone keyboard and mouse. If the keyboard and mouse are wireless, you can position them in the most comfortable place for you. (The standalone mouse makes it much easier to right click than a touch pad, too.)

Give your back and neck a break

Sitting too long in one position is a major cause of those aches and pains. Give your back, neck, eyes, and wrists a rest by getting out of your chair at least once every half hour. Go for a walk. Throw in that load so laundry if you are working from home. If you can’t go for a walk, at least stretch in place. Wiggle your legs. Move your head from side to side. Stand up to take phone calls.

Image source: Istockphoto

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