By Rachel Grumman Bender
We go to work hoping our days spent at the office will challenge us professionally, but in reality, living the 9-to-5 (or 6 or 7) desk jockey life can be demanding on the health and wellness front, too.
In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, work-related musculoskeletal problems—from muscle strains to carpal tunnel syndrome—made up 32% of all worker injury and illness cases in 2014. Sure, many of those injuries were suffered by people working production lines or doing other physically taxing jobs. But sitting hunched over a computer, typing furiously and staring at screens all day can also wreak havoc on the body.
In general, the blame lies squarely on how long you sit working at your desk. "The issue that we're really up against is that we're not made to sit—certainly not for extended periods of time," says Michael Fredericson, sports medicine physiatrist at Stanford Health Care. But when your office job calls for you to sit at a desk for hours on end, "you tend to hunch forward, and your neck protrudes, and there's eye strain. It's stress that goes through your whole body."
The good news is that, along with doing some simple stretches, making ergonomic adjustments to your work environment can significantly reduce the daily discomfort most desk jockeys deal with. And the benefits go beyond the physical. A 2014 study found that creating more ergonomic workstations in the office not only reduced musculoskeletal and vision problems, but also boosted employees' job satisfaction and happiness.
Of course, whenever you're in pain, you should consult your physician to get a handle on any underlying problems or treatment concerns. But with some of the following moves and expert tips, you could be on your way to keeping the most notorious desk job dangers at bay.
Desk Job Danger #1: Lower Back Pain
Whether it's an occasional twinge or an ongoing ache, back pain can keep you from performing at your best. Sitting chained to your desk for hours at a time can lead to lower back pain, the most common work-related back problem.
So what exactly is going on back there? Slumping back in your desk chair or slouching forward means your spine is out of alignment. That puts a strain on the ligaments and muscles in your back.
How to Quickly Relieve Tension: To tame muscle tension when it crops up, rock your pelvis back and forth while seated in your desk chair, tilting your hips up and rounding your back, and then tilting your hips back. "That will help get those back muscles loosened up," says Stephen Aguilar, occupational therapist and certified ergonomic assessment specialist at UCLA Rehabilitation Services.
The Long-Term Fix: Get some support. The length of your back should reach the back of your chair to help you sit upright. If there's a gap, use a lumbar pillow for cushioning to help prevent yourself from collapsing forward or backward into poor posture. Also, make sure your feet are resting flat on the floor, with your thighs parallel to the ground. "You want to avoid having your feet dangling off your chair," Aguilar says. "Otherwise, the weight of your leg isn't supported, which puts more strain on your back." Using a foot stool can help nix the discomfort.
Breaking a sweat can also help. Abdominal exercises, such as crunches, two to three times a week can strengthen your core. That takes pressure off your back and makes it easier to maintain good posture.
Desk Job Danger #2: Wrist Strain
Spending your days and nights pounding away at your keyboard responding to emails or writing reports can cause injuries that can become a serious health issue.
A combination of overuse and how you're positioning your wrists at your keyboard are to blame.
"Whenever you operate a keyboard or mouse, the tendons in your wrists go back and forth," Aguilar says. "These tendons are parallel to each other, so they glide back and forth and create friction, which [is called] a microtrauma. That repetitive motion causes fatigue, and the tendons may become inflamed."
A less obvious factor that plays a role in wrist pain: Poor posture, in particular having your shoulders hunched forward. That's because the position decreases the blood flow downstream, including to your hands, causing soreness or in some cases, a tingling sensation or numbness.
How to Quickly Relieve Tension: Perform a prayer stretch, also known as a Buddha stretch: Place your fingers and palms together with your hands in front of your chest, fingers pointing upward. While keeping your palms together and your elbows moving out, lower your hands until you feel a good stretch in your wrists. Hold for 5 seconds.
The Long-Term Fix: When you're using the keyboard or mouse, hold your wrists naturally so they're floating horizontally in the air—not perched higher than your hands or resting on your desk. Also, get a wrist rest for your keyboard and mouse, suggests Aguilar, and use it to take occasional breaks over the course of the day. "The key word there is rest," he says.
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Desk Job Danger #3: Neck and Shoulder Pain
You never realize just how much you move your neck and shoulders until they're injured—and then you feel every single shift and twist. These aches and pains may come from placing your keyboard or computer monitor too far away on your desk, causing you to jut your neck and shoulders forward, throwing them out of alignment with the spine and straining the muscles and soft tissue.
How to Quickly Relieve Tension: It may be tempting to pop a couple of ibuprofen to dull the discomfort, but a 2012 study found that frequent neck and shoulder stretches on a daily basis were more effective at easing pain than over-the-counter and prescription anti-inflammatory drugs—or even seeing a chiropractor.
To release a tight neck, Fredericson recommends trying a chin tuck exercise, also known as neck retraction. While standing or sitting upright, keep your spine straight and push your head forward, jutting your chin out as far as possible. Slowly reverse the movement by pulling your head back as far as possible, as if recoiling away from someone. Your head should stay level throughout the stretch, which you'll feel at the base of your neck. Repeat up to four times.
To relieve tension in your neck and shoulders simultaneously, face forward, tilt your right ear down towards right shoulder, leaving your left arm hanging straight down to increase the stretch. Hold for 20 to 60 seconds and repeat on the left side up to four times.
The Long-Term Fix: Station the computer monitor directly in front of you—not angled to the side, which forces your neck into an awkward position. If you're on the phone frequently, use a headset rather than cradling the phone between your ear and shoulder, which can cause muscle strain, says Jeffrey A. Goldstein, medical director of NYU Langone Seaport Orthopaedics. Use a chair with adjustable arm rests that allow your elbows to form a 90-degree angle. Aguilar explains that the arm rest and the arm angle help take tension off the shoulders.
"Good posture is also a longer term solution," he says. Try using an app that helps you work on improving your posture, like PostureZone, which is free. If you're really serious about your efforts, Lumo Lift ($79.99) uses a lightweight wearable sensor that vibrates when you're slouching and an app that tracks your posture habits.
Desk Job Danger #4: Eye Strain
Staring at your computer for hours at a time can cause eye fatigue, as can having a computer monitor that's too far away (making your eyes strain to read the small print) or too close (making your eyes work harder to focus). People also tend to blink less often while staring at their computer, which leads to dry eyes and fatigue.
How to Quickly Relieve Tension: Every 20 to 30 minutes, look at something off in the distance, such as a window across the length of the office, for 20 seconds to give your eyes a break. Better yet, get up and chat with a co-worker in another area of the office or run to the supply closet to grab a new pen—anything to give your eyes a break from the computer.
The Long-Term Fix: The Occupational Safety & Health Administration recommends ensuring that your computer monitor is 20 to 40 inches away from you so it's not too close or too far from where you're sitting. The top of the computer monitor should be roughly at eye level. You can also place a filter over your monitor to reduce glare, which contributes to eye strain.
If you wear glasses at work, do a ballpark measurement of the space between your eyes and the computer monitor. Then check with your optometrist to make sure you have the right prescription for that distance. "Many people wear glasses or corrective lenses, but they're designed for reading or distance," Aguilar says. "But the computer is in between both distances. Get a prescription for that computer distance and leave the pair at your office."
Desk Job Danger #5: Tight Hips
Over time, being stuck sitting in a bent position on a daily basis—from your desk at work to your couch at home—shortens your hip flexors, a group of muscles located at the front of your hips, causing pain. Tight hip flexors also contribute to lower back soreness, another common complaint.
How to Quickly Relieve Tension: Try doing a stretch to release tight hip flexors. Kneel on your left knee—like you are about to propose to someone—and place your right foot forward with your right knee bent at a 90-degree angle. Shift your pelvis forward, bend your front knee and tuck your butt under until you feel a deeper stretch in the left hip. Hold for 30 seconds. Switch legs.
The Long-Term Fix: Stand up from your desk at regular intervals to give your muscles a break and increase circulation. "In a perfect world, get up from your desk every 20 to 30 minutes," Aguilar says. "Your body has to move."
Try using a free app, such as Stand Up! or Break Reminder, that lets you set a recurring timer to remind you to get up at certain intervals over the course of the day.
By talking with your doctor and checking out some of these moves, you should be able to help yourself feel good at work—or at least make your body more comfortable.