Amy SchlingerUpdated: Apr. 23, 2020
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Work safer and smarter
Shelter-in-place mandates have forced millions of people to work remotely to reduce the spread of Covid-19. The inability to go into the office may mean no two-screen monitor display, no special headset, and no comfortable office chairs. At first, working from home seems to come with its advantages, such as sitting on the couch or lying in bed with your laptop next to you.
But over time, those “comfortable” positions can actually wreak havoc on your body. “A poor home setup can cause a variety of problems from poor focus and stamina to joint and muscle pain,” says Cameron Yuen, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments Physical Therapy & Fitness in New York City. “The intensity of these problems can range from inconvenient distractions that cost you your attention, to more debilitating pain that forces you to rest and consume analgesic medications.”
Therefore, it’s critical to have proper support and ergonomics when working from home. “If you want to maximize productivity and health, it’s important to make sure your working environment fits your needs,” says Yuen.
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Your kitchen table or office desk may position your computer a bit too low. This may lead to getting some neck and shoulder pain from straining to look down at it all day. “A laptop stand is a great balance between using a monitor or separate keyboard,” says Yuen. You can get screen elevation, which helps with neck and upper back positioning, while still keeping the keyboard at a reasonable height. If your neck, shoulders, or upper back tend to get stiff and painful, or if you get eye strain over time, then a laptop stand would be a good investment.” Yuen also notes that when choosing a stand, be sure to get one that is adjustable if possible.
Especially if you have a small laptop, when you place your device down in front of you to work, the monitor itself might not be at an optimal height. Your monitor should be at eye level so that your chin is level with the floor, explains Michele Olson, senior clinical professor, department of sports science and physical education, at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. “You don’t want to have to tilt your head down, nor hyperextend your head and neck to look up at a monitor,” Olson says. “A larger, external monitor allows your head to relax and not move excessively side to side, or up and down—plus it puts less strain on your eyes from squinting.”
Whether you’re sitting on a comfy chair, propped up on the couch, or sitting in an office chair, you might find that you need more lumbar support in order to keep good posture throughout the day and refrain from slouching your shoulders. “A lumbar pillow helps keep the natural curve of your spine, which is a posture that most people fall out of as the day progresses,” says Yuen. “But you also want to make sure that you aren’t using it 24/7. You need to move your spine out of neutral every now and then, so make sure you take a break every few hours to stand up, stretch, and move around a little.”
Yes, it might seem appealing to lay in bed and work while watching TV. However, you might soon find that you’re not as productive as you used to be—and you could begin to experience some back, neck, and shoulder pain, from the strain and positions you’re forcing your body into. Sitting at a table or desk with a chair is more ergonomically friendly. “You want a chair that you can adjust up and down to fit your workspace,” says Yuen, “so that your computer is at eye level.” You also want a chair that has a waterfall edge, as a sharp edge tends to irritate the hamstrings and the sciatic nerve, he says.
Maybe, instead of investing in a new chair, you might want to consider graduating to a standing desk. “When you sit for prolonged periods, especially if you slouch, the discs of your low back tend to get uneven stress—the front part of the disc gets compressed, and the back part of the disc expands,” explains Yuen. (And if you have a history of disc injuries, this can lead to low back and leg pain.) “When you stand, the pressure on the discs is more even, and discs can handle balanced compression very well. Standing desks are also great as they get muscles and joints of your lower body to move. This is great for getting fresh blood flow, and moving blood back to the heart,” says Yuen, which is especially ideal if you’re not getting in as many steps as you’re used to daily. If you’re looking for an alternative to 10,000 steps, try this trick.
Depending on your at-home setup and the surface you’re placing your laptop on you may notice a few things. First, it could become a bit harder to type on the keyboard. Or, you could experience pain from forcing your wrists into an uncomfortable position to type. “A keyboard should allow a bend in the elbow, but not a tight 90-degree bend,” says Olson. “The forearm should be slightly below the elbow joint.” If this isn’t the way your arms fall with your current setup, consider a wireless keyboard so you can create this ideal position.
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Similar to how you position your arms when typing, you should have a similar set up with your mouse, too. This can sometimes be impossible using a laptop trackpad. Is your wrist cramping or are you unable to move through web pages and text documents easily with your current setup? “A wireless mouse not only makes navigating easier because it allows for a greater range of motion, but it also allows your hand to sit below the wrist joint so that the wrist and fingers are not hyper-extending against gravity,” says Olson.
Like a separate keyboard, a wrist rest is not necessary. But, if you do have a history of wrist or elbow pain, it can make a big difference. “The wrist joint is relatively small, but requires multiples tendons, nerves, veins, and arteries to travel through it,” says Yuen. “If you keep your wrist in an extended position for too long, some of these structures can get irritated. A [wrist] rest allows you to assume a more neutral position which gives more space for these structures to move.”
Your legs seem to be falling asleep day in and day out. If it’s beginning to get not only uncomfortable but distracting, don’t ignore it. (Check out the 10 pains you should never ignore.) There is something that can help. Enter: A footrest. “A foot support can keep your legs from compressing too much on their posterior side against a sturdy chair,” says Olson. Yuen notes that a footrest is a great addition for nearly everyone working from home, to keep fluid from accumulating in your lower legs, due to gravity.SourcesOriginally Published:April 16, 2020SOURCES Dr. Michele Olson, PhD, FACSM, CSCS, senior clinical professor at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, AL Cameron Yuen, PT, DPT, CSCS, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments Physical Therapy & Fitness in New York, NY