Over the last century, more and more of the standard, everyday work performed by the average person is done at a desk, in an office, or on a chair. Computers, handcrafts, drafting; it’s all done at a desk. This has led to massive changes in the way we perceive work, but it has also resulted in a variety of changes in how our bodies function.
Human bodies weren’t designed to spend 8+ hours per day sitting at a desk, working at a computer. We were designed to be on our feet, moving, actively working, hunting, gathering, or parenting. A sedentary lifestyle can result in a wide range of problems, including internal issues with cardiovascular disease, and more obvious issues stemming from improper ergonomics.
Here are eight of the most common injuries you can experience working at a desk all day long, and ways you can help minimize or prevent them from occurring.
1. Lower Back Pain and Injury
Studies have shown that more than 80% of Americans will experience lower back pain at some point in their lives. It is by far the most common workplace injury for office workers and anyone who sits for most of their day. Even a moderate lower back injury can be debilitating, leading to long-term damage, worse posture, exacerbated injuries in other areas, and even workers compensation claims. Simple lower back pain can stem from muscle fatigue, but it can lead to a variety of other injuries if it is not addressed quickly.
How to avoid it: Assume a proper sitting posture. Lower back pain primarily comes from the lumbar spine, so sitting upright can help alleviate it. Lumbar spine support in the form of a lumbar pillow or an ergonomic office chair can help as well. You want to support the natural curve of your spine.
You should also consider standing and stretching frequently throughout the day. Stretches can help alleviate muscle tension and can help prevent lower back pain. Additionally, transitioning between a sitting and a standing posture, such as using a sit-stand desk, can help.
2. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is a repetitive stress injury of the hand and wrist. It’s most commonly caused by repetitive actions with the wrist bent at a bad angle, usually mouse usage or typing. It’s among the most common and most painful workplace injuries in the modern world. Wrist injuries impact up to 28 million Americans every year and can cost a company thousands of dollars in compensation claims. For those affected, it can take weeks or months to heal and can be aggravated again quite easily.
How to avoid it: Adjust your positioning. For a proper ergonomic posture, you want the height of your keyboard to be roughly even with your elbows. Your arms should rest more or less neutrally at your sides, with your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle to reach your keyboard. You can also try some hand and wrist exercises to prevent injuries.
Various accessories can help with ergonomic typing. You can consider:
- An ergonomic keyboard, which allows your wrists to be positioned in a more natural placement while you type.
- A wrist rest, which should ideally be positioned under the palms of your hands. Resting your actual wrists on it can put more pressure on the tendons in your wrists and aggravate injuries.
- A negative tilt keyboard tray, which holds your keyboard at an angle where the spacebar is higher than the function keys, allowing a more natural angle of your wrists while typing.
Other accessories can help as well, such as a wrist brace or an alternative mouse device.
3. Tennis Elbow
Also known as Epicondylitis, tennis elbow is an injury of the tendons in the elbow. It’s a pain in the outside of the elbow, rather than the inside, and is very common amongst tennis players, hence the name. It’s also common with any activity that strains or hyperextends the elbow joint itself. It’s extremely common, though often relatively minor, and can cause a huge expense in terms of lost productivity and workplace injury claims.
Perhaps the most common cause of tennis elbow in the workplace is mouse usage. Extending the elbow and making repeated small movements can strain and tear the muscles and tendons in the elbow, leading to pain. This is why the syndrome is also occasionally called mouse elbow.
How to avoid it: You have two options. The first is to adjust your overall posture to make mouse usage more natural. The same tips for wrist injuries apply, keeping your elbow and wrist angles neutral and using them as little as possible for repetitive tasks.
The other option is to consider an alternative mouse device. A trackball can alleviate damage to the elbow, though may cause more injury to the wrist. Sideways mice are a more natural angle for holding a mouse, and trackpads can change the overall position of your interface device. All can have some benefit, depending on your workflow.
4. Rotator Cuff Injuries
Your rotator cuff is part of your shoulder and is a very common injury in both office work and manual labor. They are also among the most expensive injuries, often requiring surgery and long periods of physical therapy to recover full use of the arm. Rotator cuff injuries and other shoulder injuries are common when working in an unnatural position or with arms raised, and can occur at any time.
How to avoid it: Keep arm effort in mind when working. Any time you’re putting a strain on your shoulders can lead to injury. Try to avoid storing anything you need to access frequently overhead and keep your overhead weight limit low. If you need to routinely access anything above shoulder level, invest in a step ladder or other climbing device to assist you. Having the proper ergonomic posture while working – back straight, your arms sitting loose at your sites, and your armrests in an appropriate position – can all help as well.
5. Neck Injuries
Neck injuries are also very common in the modern workplace, and many people don’t even realize their posture is contributing to it. It doesn’t help that much of what we use during the day is designed with ergonomics in mind, so when something doesn’t fit, it’s not noticed right away.
Neck injuries are some of the easiest to avoid, and simultaneously some of the most expensive injuries to deal with. Neck injuries take a long time to heal, and can often require surgical intervention when they get bad enough. Even a minor neck injury can take weeks or months to heal on its own, and can easily become aggravated again, setting back all progress. It’s perhaps the most important kind of injury to work to prevent.
How to avoid it: Adjust the height of the items you work with for a natural, neutral viewing angle. For the average office worker, that means adjusting the height of your screen, primarily. The top third of your screen should be roughly eye level, so you’re looking straight ahead or slightly down. This applies to both sitting and standing.
If you work on a desktop PC, consider using a monitor mounting arm to adjust the height of your screen. If you work with a laptop, consider using a dock with a mounted screen or a laptop stand with a USB keyboard and mouse. This also helps with wrist injuries, as the traditional keyboard on a laptop is not laid out to be ergonomic. A high quality ergonomic chair with a head rest will also help relieve neck pain.
Additionally, getting into a habit of doing neck and shoulder stretches at regular intervals – every 60 to 90 minutes, typically – can help as well.
6. Knee Injuries
Knee injuries don’t seem like they would be very common for an employee who sits all day since they tend to be injuries of strain or stress on the muscles and tendons in the knee. The knee is, however, a relatively fragile joint. This makes it particularly troublesome with improper positioning while sitting.
Perhaps the most common kind of knee injury is caused by sitting with your legs in an improper position. This puts lateral stress on the knee joint, which pulls tendons and muscles at a bad angle. This will eventually lead to weakness and fatigue in the knee, and can also lead to pain. If the knee is not injured while sitting, it can then be injured more easily while walking or performing physical activities.
How to avoid it: When sitting, maintain proper ergonomic posture. Your feet should be flat on the ground in front of you, spread naturally, slightly apart. Your knees should be bent at a 90-degree angle, with your thighs level with the ground. This means your chair needs to have an adjustable seat pan, so you can maintain that position without effort.
Make sure you’re not too high or too low in your chair. Make sure the angle of the seat is neutral or tilted slightly downward, to alleviate any pressure that the forward edge would put on the backs of your thighs.
It can also be beneficial to convert to a standing desk position periodically throughout the day. Adjusting your posture between sitting and standing can distribute stress and, so long as you have an anti-fatigue mat, can be more comfortable than maintaining one or the other all day.
7. Herniated Discs
Another form of a back injury, a herniated disk is caused by a spinal injury. Your vertebra, the bones that form your spinal column, are all separated by a rubbery disc that cushions and lubricates it as you move. In instances of stress and strain, the soft center of the spinal column can push out between discs. This can irritate nearby nerves and muscle contractions, knots, frequent pain, and even nerve damage. These can occur anywhere along the spinal column. Herniated discs can cause no symptoms, or they can be extremely uncomfortable and painful.
How to avoid it: Practice proper posture. If your job involves lifting heavy objects, make sure to lift properly, with your knees and not your back. Adjust your posture for a properly straight back when sitting and when standing. You can consider a shoulder harness to pull your shoulders back and correct your posture as well.
Other concerns include your shoes, your weight, and your activity levels. People who sit for long periods of time are at greater risk for back injuries. Standing and stretching, as well as working from a reclined position can both help. As for shoes, avoid high heels as much as possible. Flat shoes help keep your spine free of compression.
8. Eye Strain
Though not a musculoskeletal injury, eye strain can lead to a whole host of other problems. Eye strain can cause headaches, and attempting to relieve headaches can lead to other postural issues. Eye strain and eye fatigue can worsen your eyesight over time, and can even cause or contribute to problems like dry eye.
How to avoid it: There are many possible ways to adjust your workplace to minimize eye strain.
First, adjust the brightness and ambient lighting in your workplace. You want a warmer-colored light and a dimmer light than what most computer screens offer. When working in the dark or at night, use an app like Flux to adjust the color balance of your computer display. Avoid viewing flickering images and intense strobing videos while working.
Adjust other sources of lighting in your workplace to minimize glare on your screen. If possible, obtain a new monitor with an anti-reflective coating or anti-glare shield. You can also consider polarized or anti-glare glasses to help reduce eye strain.
Proper positioning is also important. Make sure your screen is not too close or too far from your face. The exact positioning depends on the size of the screen and the size of the text you’re working with on that screen. A monitor arm can help you adjust your screen height so that it is at the correct level, minimizing neck and eye strain.
Many common workplace injuries can be prevented with simple training. Others require new hardware, office supplies, smart tools, or furniture to address. Getting an appropriate office setup can be crucial for a long and healthy career. When in doubt, take breaks, take time to stretch and exercise, stand instead of sitting for some of the time you work, and make sure your posture is as close to perfect as it can be.
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