Work Wellness

5 Simple Ways to Prevent Neck and Back Pain While Working

Avatar of Bud Ward Bud Ward | Mar 3, 2021
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Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are the most common type of injury in the workplace. These conditions include carpal tunnel syndrome, elbow tendonitis, rotator cuff injuries, and neck/back strains. MSDs occur when the physical capabilities of an employee do not match the physical requirements of the job.

Common causes of these injuries are repetitive activities, poor positioning, forceful movements, poor body mechanics, and prolonged time in static positions. Neck and back strains can be the most limiting type of workplace injuries. They can lead to missed time from work, higher medical costs, and higher employer costs. MSDs can be prevented by improving postural awareness, redesigning workstations, using ergonomically correct equipment, adjusting workflow, taking breaks, and performing preventative exercises.

The Role of Ergonomics

The Role of Ergonomics

Ergonomics is defined by Merrimack-Webster as "an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely." It may also be referred to as human engineering or human factors studies. Ergonomic solutions include specialized tools, adjustable workstations, safe environmental conditions, and efficient workflows.

In office settings, ergonomic tools such as specially designed keyboards, mice, monitors, and writing instruments help to reduce repetitive strain and postural strain for workers. Desks, chairs, keyboard trays, monitor stands, and standing desk converters make up the workstation or work environment.

Workstations with proper ergonomic setup decrease strain, improve biomechanical efficiency and boost productivity. Workflow describes the processes, methods, and movements required to perform job tasks. Modifying workflow can avoid repetitive, redundant, and strenuous activities to reduce injury risk.

5 Simple Things You Can Do

Many companies have comprehensive ergonomics programs designed to improve employee comfort and to maximize efficiency, but there are five simple things that you can do to prevent neck and back pain at work.

1. Improve Your Posture and Position

Improve Your Posture and Position

When you sit in a chair, make sure that your lower and mid-back are fully supported by the back of the chair. Sit in an upright position with your chin in, shoulders back, and chest out. Your hips and knees should be bent at roughly 90 degrees with your feet flat on the floor. The arms should hang naturally at your sides with the elbows resting on the arms of the chair.

Avoid slouching to help prevent a forward head position in your neck or a “hammock effect” in your low back. If necessary, use a lumbar support or small pillow to fill the space in the small of your low back to prevent adopting a slumped position.

2. Choose Ergonomically Correct Workstations and Tools

Choose Ergonomically

Ergonomic workstations can have a significant impact on injury risk and productivity. The basic components of an office workstation are the chair and desk. There are thousands of chairs on the market ranging from basic to highly specialized. Proper seating will reduce or eliminate strain on the neck and back. It is important for chairs to be supportive and adjustable.
Desks are the hub of workstations and they’re where the work actually gets done. Standing desks, which have become popular over the last few years, are available in fixed, manually adjustable, and electrically adjustable forms. Adjustable standing desks allow you to work in either sitting or standing positions. Manually adjusted desks typically use a hand crank to raise or lower the work surface. They are less expensive, but electrically adjustable desks are much easier to setup. 

Desktop converters are an excellent alternative to your entire desks. They are a more cost effective way to convert standard desks into standing desks. The converter sits on top of an existing desk to raise the height of the keyboard, mouse, and monitor. They come is a variety of configurations including dual monitor and those with a shelf to accommodate laptops.

3. Modify Your Workflow

Modify Your Workflow

Workflow describes the series of activities that are required to complete a job task or project. Some jobs require workers to be in awkward positions or to perform repetitive movements throughout the shift. These positions and activities can put workers at risk for injury - especially neck and back injuries. Some jobs may have strict workflows that are difficult to modify, but there are usually components that can be adjusted to reduce the risk of injury. If you sit for most of the day, try standing while working for part of your shift. Try to avoid repetitive activities when possible or mix them with other tasks that require different movements.

Limit the amount of bending and heavy lifting you do, but if that isn’t possible, make sure to use proper body mechanics to perform these activities. When you need to lift, bend your hips and knees to lower your body closer to the object. Keep your back relatively straight and use your legs create the lifting force. Your lower back muscles are designed primarily to maintain your upright posture, not for heavy lifting.

4. Take Breaks and Walk

Take Breaks and Walk

Taking breaks is one of the best ways to prevent neck and back pain at work. Many of us get so involved in a project that we forget to change positions. Have you ever been working on the computer and realized that you haven’t moved in several hours? 

You need to take breaks throughout the day and change positions or to walk around. Use a timer, smartphone, browser extension, or standalone app to remind you to take breaks at set intervals. You can choose traditional break intervals based on 30 to 60- minute blocks or use a system like the Pomodoro technique.
The Pomodoro technique is based on 25-minute blocks of focused work called Pomodoros. After each 25 minute session, you take a 3-5 minute break, then begin the next Pomodoro. Once you’ve completed four Pomodoro sessions (~2 hours of work), take a longer 15-20 minute break before resuming your work. These longer breaks are the perfect time to go for a walk. 

If possible, go for a short walk around your neighborhood. This will improve the blood flow to your muscles and reduce the postural strain on your body. The movement from walking can improve joint flexibility and increased activation of your core trunk muscles.

Walking improves cardiovascular function and reduces stress. Many people claim that walking improves their ability to focus and process information. A study at Stanford University found that walking also improves creativity. The researchers determined that walking outside produced nearly twice the creative output as walking inside.

5. Perform Preventative Exercises

Perform Preventative Exercises

Performing stretching and range of motion exercises are a great way to prevent muscle tightness and pain while working. Stretching exercises restore normal muscle length and improve the blood flow to the muscles. When you stay in a static position for long periods of time, your muscles can become tight. This can cause the following cycle of dysfunction: tightness -> limited blood flow -> decreased oxygen -> more tightness.
Performing stretching exercises helps to break this cycle by decreasing the tightness and allowing more blood flow to the muscles. The increase in blood flow brings more oxygen to the tissues which prevents cramping and muscle guarding. The list below includes several stretches for the neck, back, trunk, arms, and legs.

Neck and Arm Stretches

Upper Trap Stretch

  • Sit upright in a chair and place one hand under your chair.
  • Lean toward the opposite direction until your shoulder is anchored.
  • Gently tilt your head to the opposite side until a comfortable stretch is felt in the upper shoulder/neck area.
  • Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds, then repeat 3-4 times on each side.

Upper Trap Stretch

Levator Scapula Stretch

  • Sit upright in a chair and place one hand under your chair.
  • Lean toward the opposite direction until your shoulder is anchored.
  • Gently turn your head approximately 45 degrees to one side, then tilt your head down until a comfortable stretch is felt from the base of your skull to your shoulder blade.
  • Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds, then repeat 3-4 times on each side.

Levator Scapula Stretch

Scalene Stretch

  • Sit upright in a chair and place one hand under your chair.
  • Lean toward the opposite direction until your shoulder is anchored.
  • Gently turn your head approximately 45 degrees to one side, then tilt your head backward until a comfortable stretch is felt along the front side of the neck near your collarbone.
  • Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds, then repeat 3-4 times on each side.

Overhead Tricep Stretch

  • Raise one arm overhead with your bicep near your ear, then bend the elbow.
  • Use your other hand to slowly pull your elbow backward and toward the opposite side until you feel a comfortable stretch.
  • Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds, then repeat 3-4 times on each side.

Overhead Tricep Stretch

Chest and Upper Back Stretches

Doorway Upper Back Stretch

  • Stand in a doorway with a frame, anchor your hands in a crossover manner so your right hand is on the left of the door frame and your left hand is on the right of the door frame.
  • Slowly push your upper back backward while tucking your head gently to achieve a stretch in the neck and upper back.
  • Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds, then repeat 3-4 times.

Doorway Upper Back Stretch

Corner Pec/Chest Stretch

  • Find a corner and place your forearms against the walls at a 90-degree angle.
  • Slowly lean forward into the corner until you feel a stretch across the front of your chest.
  • Return to the starting position.
  • Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds, then repeat 3-4 times.

Corner Pec Chest Stretch

Side Stretch

  • Standing with right hand on a table or wall, cross left leg in front of right leg, feet pointing forward.
  • Shift into the left hip and reach left arm up and overhead, creating a long line from the left ankle to the left fingertips.
  • Hold 20-30 seconds while taking a few deep inhales and exhales. Perform 3-4 repetitions on each side.

Lower Back and Leg Stretches

Hip Flexor Stretch

  • Stand with the left foot forward and the right foot back
  • Place your hands on your hips
  • With your trunk straight, shift your weight toward the front foot
  • Keep your back foot on the ground to maximize the stretch
  • As you shift your weight forward, you should feel a gentle stretch in the front of the right thigh and hip
  • Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds, then repeat 3-4 times; switch feet and repeat the exercise

Hip Flexor Stretch

Seated Hamstring Stretch

  • While seated, rest your heel on the floor with your knee straight.
  • Gently lean forward until a stretch is felt behind your knee/thigh.
  • You should keep your low back straight to focus the stretch on the hamstring muscles.
  • Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds, then repeat 3-4 times on each leg.

Upper and Lower Calf Stretches

  • While standing and leaning against a wall, place one foot back behind you and bend the front knee.
  • Your back knee should be straight the entire time.
  • Shift your weight forward until you feel a gentle stretch in the upper calf of the back leg.
  • Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds, then repeat 3-4 times; switch feet and repeat the exercise.
  • To focus on the lower calf, bend the back leg slightly until you feel the stretch in the lower part of the calf muscle.

Upper and Lower Calf Stretches

Summary

Neck and back pain are two of the most common musculoskeletal disorders that we may experience while working. They can lead to decreased productivity, missed time from work, and expensive medical care. Your company might have a comprehensive ergonomic and workplace injury prevention program, but you can take simple steps to protect yourself as well. If you follow the guidelines in this article, you should find that you have less pain, improved flexibility, and more energy at the end of your workday.

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WRITTEN BYBud Ward

Bud is a physical therapist, writer, and ergonomic consultant in Baltimore, MD. He writes about health, wellbeing, and personal development.

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