Neck pain is one of the most common complaints coming from those who work at a desk or computer all day, for hours every day, as part of their jobs. The average workplace is not designed with comfort in mind, and indeed, some workplaces consider the discomfort an incentive to prevent laziness, sleeping, or low productivity.
Of course, studies have shown that a comfortable worker is a productive worker. Ergonomic solutions that prevent neck, back, shoulder and wrist pain make it easier and less distracting to work. Injuries disrupt focus, hurt concentration, and are a constant demand for your energy and attention.
Perhaps the biggest (and easiest) change you can make at work, to reduce neck pain and other related workplace stresses, is to invest in an ergonomic chair. Just how can such a chair help? Many ways.
Reasons You Develop Neck Pain
Neck pain is a symptom of a larger problem, and that problem is a sedentary lifestyle and poor posture. Millions of Americans across the country suffer from poor posture, and many don’t even recognize that their posture is poor. Years of study have developed the modern science of ergonomics, but it takes time for that information to propagate throughout the workplace enough that the people in charge make decisions based on it.
The number one reason for neck pain is poor posture. Poor posture puts a strain on the neck muscles, as well as related muscle groups in the shoulders and upper back.
What begins as minor initial soreness compounds. When a muscle is sore, that means it is injured in some way. Your body naturally compensates by tensing other muscles to alleviate the strain on the injured muscle. Those other muscles become tense and overworked, knotting up and becoming painful themselves. Eventually, this can reach the primary stabilizing muscles in your back and core, throwing your entire torso out of balance. Muscles straining to hold other muscles in place, themselves grow tight and painful.
What goes into a poor posture? To understand that, you need to know what good posture is. The human spine is not straight; it’s more of a gentle S curve, from tailbone to the base of the skull. A flat-backed chair will only contact your back at the base of your spine, somewhere in your middle and upper back, and potentially the base of your skull if you have a headrest. The gap in your lumbar region is a natural extension of the curvature of the spin.
One of the main sources of injury is trying to force the lower part of your spine against the back of the chair. While this may feel comfortable at first, it forces your upper spine and neck forward, which in turn requires you to twist your head upwards to watch your computer screen. This puts stress on the neck and starts the compounding muscle strain.
A computer screen that is too low or too high can cause these problems as well. Too low and you may be looking down, stressing your neck more. Too high and you compress your cervical vertebrae, which can lead to muscle strain and even pinched nerves.
Additionally, your feet need to be positioned properly. We often lose track of our feet while we’re working, since we’re focused so much on our screens and our hands. For proper posture, your feet should be flat on the floor while you’re sitting. Too high and your legs swing freely, which encourages you to cross them or sit in an improper posture. Too low and your knees rise, stretching the base of your spine and pulling your back muscles.
Sitting cross-legged or otherwise out of proper posture can also put torsion on your spine. A twisted pelvis, one hip higher than the other, puts an asymmetrical strain on your entire back, which compounds through the muscles in your back and neck. Again, this can have a cascading effect throughout the whole of your body.
Finally, your arms need to be properly positioned for the work you’re doing. They should hang relatively loose at your sides, and your keyboard should be close enough to use without having to reach for it. Any other position can lead to hunched or stretched shoulders, which puts stress on those muscles and compounds.
Alleviating Neck Pain with Ergonomics
A chair can solve most of the issues described above if it’s properly fitted for your body and adjusted to suit your unique body shape. Here’s how.
Chair height. The height of the chair is one of the simplest and most common ergonomic adjustments available. Even the cheapest office chairs generally have an adjustable height, even if they have no other ergonomic features.
The proper height of a chair should be roughly equal to your knees. You want the chair to be high enough off the ground so that your thighs are parallel with the ground. If it’s too low, your knees will be lifted and will result in poor posture. Conversely, if your knees are too high to where your feet won’t firmly touch the ground, this will also cause poor posture.
Note that other adjustments may make it more difficult to position your chair height properly. You can have a chair that is too high to rest your feet on the ground, but you need a level footrest surface. Often, a simple box or foot stand works for this purpose. Your goal is to have your feet flat on the ground comfortably.
Armrest height. Your arms should be neutral and free at your sides when you work as much as possible. Studies have shown that the ideal range of motion for your elbows should be between 90 and 110 degrees; a right angle or slightly more open. With your arms at your side, your elbows should be able to rest on your armrests without hunching your shoulders or straining to keep them held up.
You may need to use a keyboard drawer for a low enough keyboard and mouse position to make this acceptable. If you can’t use a keyboard drawer and need to use the surface of your desk, consider raising the height of your chair. As mentioned above, if you raise the height of your chair, you should get a footrest to raise the height of the “floor” as well.
Spine and lumbar support. Again as mentioned, your spine curves naturally in and out. The inward depression in your spine is the lumbar region, and that region needs support to sit comfortably in proper posture. Lumbar support can be built into a chair design as an adjustable piece of hardware, or it can be a separate product that you can attach to your existing chair.
Your chair should offer some level of curvature to suit your back. Some chairs have multiple points of tension in their mesh backs to form a natural curve. Others have gently curved backs with adjustable lumbar support, to move the support pad up or down, or in or out. Adjusting lumbar support to a comfortable position is perhaps the second most important part of ergonomics, after adjusting the height of the chair.
Head and neck support. Not all chairs have head support, but it’s generally better to have it than not. A headrest that can adjust forward and backward, that has adjustable tilt, and that offers a neck support pillow is the ideal choice. Being able to rest your head against something allows your neck muscles to relax which will help to alleviate any neck and shoulder pain.
The neck support, while beneficial in its own right, is surprisingly not the most important part of ergonomic design for preventing neck pain. Other ergonomic and posture issues are far more likely to compound into neck pain if they’re left unaddressed, and a headrest alone may not solve your neck pain issues.
So, to recap, you want a chair that has:
- Adjustable height.
- Lumbar support.
- Support for spinal curvature.
- Head and neck support.
- Adjustable armrests.
For bonus points, it's ideal to have a footrest if your desk layout requires you to be raised higher than you can sit with your feet flat on the floor. Most ergonomic chairs offer most or all of those features in most price ranges. Cheaper chairs tend to do away with the headrest first and pare down other ergonomic features until they’re flat-backed and armless.
Other Ergonomic Adjustments
There are a few other ergonomic adjustments you can make to your office space to alleviate neck pain. They don’t necessarily have anything to do with your office chair, but they can allow for other adjustments that make your chair more comfortable.
Level your monitor. The top of your computer screen should be roughly level with your eyebrows or forehead, so your gaze stares at the top third of your screen. A slight downward tilt is more comfortable and more ergonomic than a slight upward tilt. Many screens require you to raise them to meet this eye level.
This can pose a challenge for those who work on laptops. The ideal solution is one of these options:
- Use a laptop dock that transfers the screen of the device to an external monitor that is positioned at eye level.
- Use a laptop mount or stand to raise the screen to the proper level, and plug in an external keyboard and mouse for interface work.
Use a negative tilt keyboard. While a keyboard position won’t affect neck pain as much as other ergonomic solutions, it does help with wrist pain and repetitive stress injuries. A negative tilt keyboard props the front of the keyboard up rather than the back, so your wrists maintain a natural straight line from elbow to fingers, rather than an extension.
Negative tilt keyboards come in many varieties; some are built into the keyboard, some using a pad under the front of it, and some using a tilted shelf. However you decide to do it, make sure to keep the keyboard low enough that you’re not lifting your arms to type.
Consider a standing desk. Only one thing is more ergonomic for the body than proper posture while sitting, and that’s standing. We weren’t meant to be sitting for hours every day; our bodies have evolved to stand for much of the day instead.
A standing desk eliminates the need for a chair and all of its ergonomic adjustments. Instead, an anti-fatigue mat on the floor is more important. You still need to position both your keyboard and your monitor at the appropriate heights, but you don’t have to worry about seat height, lumbar support, or a headrest.
The ideal is actually to do both: use a sit-stand conversion desk that can adjust between a sitting position and a standing position throughout the day. Every hour or two, transition from one to the other.
Additional Neck Relief
In addition to ergonomics and the possibility of using a standing desk for part of the day, consider taking other actions to alleviate neck pain throughout the day.
First, make sure to get up and walk around at least once an hour. Whether it’s a bathroom break, a trip to the break room, or just a lap around the office, getting up and moving helps loosen up your muscles and correct your posture. You may also want to consider a standing desk to help you stretch and change your posture throughout the day.
Second, do stretches periodically. This article lists a series of stretches you can do for arms, neck, back, shoulders, and legs throughout the day. Doing these stretches can help alleviate various forms of pain you may encounter while working.
Third, stay hydrated and eat healthily. While these aren’t restricted to the office, a poor diet and dehydration can lead to mounting stress, including headaches and tension in your muscles. Staying hydrated in particular is extremely important for alleviating stress.
As long as you can do all of these things, as well as adjust an ergonomic chair to suit your office work, you should be able to alleviate or eliminate the neck pain you experience. Just make sure that if your neck pain persists or gets worse, you consult a doctor. Neck pain can also be caused by nerve issues or spinal problems, and they may require physical therapy or surgery to correct. Knowing whether or not that’s the case allows you to address any issues as early as possible and prevent such problems from getting worse.
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