Avoiding computer back pain

Preventing back and neck pain while working at a computer station is not an exact science. There are always new ideas, differing opinions and products being developed. Different experts have various recommendations as to the ideal distance between your eyes and the monitor, or the perfect angle for your elbows and knees. Depending on the ‘expert’ consulted, there will be different recommendations.

When it comes to prevention, there are some common points on which most experts agree:

  • take regular breaks to protect your back and neck from fatigue;
  • sit in an adjustable chair that provides low back (lumbar) support;
  • your feet should be on the floor or on a footrest;
  • your forearms should be supported while using the keyboard;
  • the keyboard should be low enough that you don’t need to shrug your shoulders;
  • monitor in-line with straight vision;
  • Avoid glare from the screen.

When you are sitting at a PC there are a number of things that can be done to prevent back and neck problems. When muscles become fatigued, they ache.

Stretching exercises for the neck and shoulder muscles should be done intermittently throughout the day to help prevent them from aching. If your neck and shoulder ache on the same side your mouse is located, it’s a clue that your shoulder position is fatiguing the area when you use the mouse.

Stiffness and soreness that progresses as the day develops across the base of the neck and upper shoulders is likely due to a postural slump that develops as the day goes on. Tiredness and poor posture causes the pelvis to tilt backward, then the lower back flattens, and the head comes forward. In other words, the body becomes ‘C’ shaped, and sits in a slumped position.

This ‘poking chin’ posture creates a lever system in the neck. The pivot point of the lever is the base of the neck. This postural fault creates force through the neck that is multiplied three times. This creates three times as much force on the joints and the neck and shoulder muscles have to work three times harder to hold the head in this position.

The average weight of an adult head is between 8 to 12lb, so 12lbs of force need to be generated by the neck and shoulder muscles to hold your head up. If your head falls forward as described, the muscles now need to generate 36lbs of force to hold your head up. After a period of time, this amount of force generation will cause fatigue and pain.

To prevent neck and shoulder fatigue from occurring, move your chair close to the PC and sit back in your chair properly. This will prevent your pelvis from tilting backwards as the backrest opposes it. If your feet cannot reach the floor comfortably, either lower your chair or use a foot rest.

If sitting for too long causes back pain or soreness, it may be due to the forces that occur in the spine. When you sit in a slumped position the normal curve of the lumbar spine is lost. In so doing, the force distribution is lost. When sitting in the slumped position there is approximately 1.5 times the amount of compressive force through your spine than when standing. This increased force may, over a period of time, fatigue the spinal muscles, irritate the joints and cause pain. It may even lead to early degenerative changes.

When you sit, it is best to sit in an upright neutral posture that maintains the natural curve of the spine. This can help to prevent excessive loading of the lower back.

To prevent stiffness of the lower spine in sitting, you can gently rock the pelvis forwards and backwards – sit upright and then slowly allow the pelvis to drop backwards, and then slowly sit upright again. Then can be done while sitting, but you must move away from the chair backrest to allow you to drop your pelvis backwards.

It is also beneficial to stand frequently (every hour) to reset the spinal tension that has built up over the last hour of sitting. Breaks from sitting allow the spine to regain the normal lumbar curvature, unloads the joints, and gives the muscles a chance to relax. Gentle extension exercises may help the spine to regain its normal curve.

Should you experience ongoing back or neck pain due to the ergonomics of your work set-up, discuss possible solutions with your physical health specialist.

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