A Healthy Desk Set-Up: Tips for Managing Neck and Back Pain For Office Workers

In 2020 the work environment continues to evolve with more and more people working from home and if they do work in an office, “hot-desking” is becoming the norm.

As a physiotherapist many of my clients are in these working situations and when dealing with persistent neck or back pain having a good desk set-up can make all the difference.

Just like a good pillow or mattress can make for an amazing sleep experience or how a decent pair of shoes can make walking or running that much more enjoyable, the right desk set-up can allow for laser-like focus and high productivity.

Imagine this. And maybe you can relate?

  • Neck pain.

  • Shoulder tension.

  • Pulsating headache.

  • Tingling fingers.

  • Back ache after sitting for 15 minutes.

If you were to experience any one of these symptoms, or all of them, do you think work at a desk would be an enjoyable experience?

Do you think you’d be able to get your work done?

Day after day of trying to work, but in constant pain?

It would be frustrating wouldn't it?

Maybe you would manage for awhile, but it would quickly become a hard slog! Not only would be in physical pain, your mood and outlook may also deteriorate.

Before moving onto to specific tips to set up your desk I think it is important to address one of the most common questions I get asked a Physio, “Should I sit or should I stand?”

The truth is too much of either is probably not great for your body.

The body was designed to move, so I would always recommend changing it up.

There has been a lot of talk about sitting being the new smoking due to the health risks of prolonged sitting.

Purported health risks of prolonged sitting include increased risk of:

  • Cardiovascular disease

  • Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)

  • Obesity

  • Diabetes

The current thinking is that when sitting for a prolonged period, your largest muscles are more relaxed, needing less glucose, those increasing blood glucose levels. Prolonged sitting can also stiffen and weaken your muscles, which may lead to increased pain.

But what about standing in one spot all day with little change in position - surely that can’t be that great either?

Standing in one position for a prolonged period may potentially lead to swelling in your lower extremities (feet, ankles), leg pain and back pain.

All that being said, many research studies have demonstrated that working at a standing desk increases focus and enhances work productivity.

From my experience, it all depends on the individual. Some may tolerate more time standing, and some sitting. This will be largely impacted by the strategies they use to sit or stand.

If you can sit poorly, you can surely stand poorly. So when it comes to the best posture, it's always your next posture - move!

As a Physiotherapist my key recommendation would be to mix it up.

  • Try sitting for 40 minutes and standing for 20 minutes for every hour of work. If you prefer to stand, do the opposite.

  • Take a break from your static posture to move your body and stretch your muscles.

  • Moving your body, particularly your larger joints will help promote circulation to your muscles and help reduce body tension.

Key Questions to Consider about your desk and chair set-up:

  • Does your desk and chair fit your body?

  • Can you sit back in your chair with your feet flat on the floor?

  • Are your hips slightly above knee height?

  • When your typing are your elbows at 90 degree angles?

Desk Set-up Tips for Your Home Office

  • Dining room tables are not ideal, but if you answered yes to the above questions it could work.

  • Sitting on the sofa, bed or even on the floor at your coffee table are NOT appropriate alternatives to home working spaces!

  • If your feet don't (and can't) touch the floor, try place a stool under your feet.

  • While a good desktop computer is ideal it is much more common for you to be working on a laptop, and there are some great alternative set-ups you can employ. You can invest in a laptop stand and second keyboard or a monitor of appropriate height (at or slightly below eye height) to hook up to your laptop.

  • Are you standing? The same rules regarding monitor height and desk height apply. Regarding standing posture - try to stand with soft (not locked knees) and aim to balance your weight equally left and right

  • Not at the same desk everyday? Do your best to adjust your desk and seat height.

Have a specific question about setting up your desk so that you are more comfortable working? Please reach out. Email me at brendan@redoheath.com.au.

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