Workplace ergonomics: How to avoid shoulder, neck and back pain

Patients often come to me with complaints of pain in their neck, shoulders and back.  At first glance, I usually notice that these patients are hunched over with rounded shoulders and their heads are titled forward. Further questioning often reveals the source of pain: a day job that requires them to sit at a desk all day.

Musculoskeletal disorders are caused when the body is exposed to repetitive tasks and awkward positions. Sitting throughout the day can cause pain in the muscles, joints and nerves.  Over time, this pain leads to decreased range of motion, as well as numbness and tingling in different areas of the body.

Fortunately, these issues can be fixed.

Ergonomics is the science of fitting the workplace conditions and job demands to the employee.  It includes designing and arranging the furniture and objects that employees use in their workplace, so that they can work efficiently and reduce injury.

Having a workstation that fits properly to the worker can decrease the onset of these problems and lead to improved mood and productivity.

The proper chair, set at the appropriate height with a cushion to support the low back, is probably one of the most important pieces of the workstation. A properly adjusted chair should allow your feet to be flat on the floor, with your back resting against the back of the chair, allowing the ankles, knees and hips to maintain a 90 degree angle.

Now let’s move on to the computer. The keyboard should allow the elbows to bend at 90 degrees and rest close to the body with straight wrists.  The top of the monitor should be at eye level. Laptops can be detrimental to workplace comfort as their smaller structure can promote a bent posture.  If using a laptop is a must, place the device on a higher table or desk so the user can sit in a more upright position.

The best way to avoid musculoskeletal disorders is to reset your posture often throughout the day. Adjustable height standing desks are an easy way to ensure that you’re changing positons throughout the day, especially if you are not able to “walk away” from a work task.  Using a timer to assist with these standing breaks could be helpful.                     

By maintaining a neutral posture and changing positions frequently, your chance of pain could decrease and your productivity could improve.

Peggy Fox, PTA, BS, CEAS, is a physical therapist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.