Using ergonomics to avoid injury

August 20, 2010 By Angelina Jacobs, M.D.

Is your desk job a pain in the neck?

Working at a computer all day (or surfing the web at night at home) might not seem like the kind activity that could hurt you. But if your work station isn't set up properly for you and you're not practicing good posture and positioning, you may end up with a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD). An MSD is an injury affecting the muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints or bones. It may develop over time or occur suddenly. For frequent computer users, the most common MSDs include wrist and neck strain and shoulder discomfort.

That's where ergonomics comes in. While the official definition is complicated, ergonomics is basically a way to reduce wear and tear on the human body. It involves fitting the workplace to each individual so he/she can work without pain and avoid long-term detrimental effects. Ergonomics doesn't have to be complicated – a few simple adjustments can make a big difference for those with a desk job:

• Improve your sitting posture. Many people sit on the edge of the seat, but your back should be supported against the chair back. Chair and arm rest height should be adjusted so your elbows are bent at 90 degrees, and the arm rest should support your arms so your shoulders are relaxed. Elbows should stay close to the body. Feet should be on the floor (if they don't reach, get a foot rest).
• When looking at the computer monitor, your neck should be neutral – your chin shouldn't be tilted up or down. For many people, when sitting in normal working posture, eye level should be just over the top of the monitor.
• Keep your wrists neutral. When typing, your hands shouldn't be bent up or down. A cushioned wrist rest can help some people maintain a neutral wrist posture. However, the wrist rest should not put pressure on your wrist. Rather it should be in contact with your palm. If you use a keyboard tray, be sure to bring it up when typing so your wrist is in neutral position.
• Keep your mouse close. Many people position their computer mouse too far forward and out, forcing them to extend their arm to reach for it and causing neck and shoulder pain. Keep your shoulders neutral and relaxed by moving your mouse as close to your keyboard as possible. When not using the mouse, let it go. Give your muscles a chance to rest.
• If your job requires frequent phone use, get a head set. Cradling the phone between your neck and shoulder can damage the cervical discs in the neck.

No matter how good your posture and how appropriate your work station, no one can stay in one position too long. Take periodic breaks from your desk work and do another task or, better yet, stretch!

Angelina Jacobs, M.D., specializes in occupational health at The Hospital of Central Connecticut.