Pain At The Desk

Dec21st 2020

Working at my desk causes pain. What can I do?

It’s tax season and we are all probably spending even more hours working on our computers and desks trying to get things done. Add that to hours of looking at screens on our phones and tablets and we spend a lot of time in poor postures doing repetitive motions with our hands. What can we do to help alleviate aches and pains that result from these actions?

First of all we need to understand a little of how we are put together. Your head is balanced on top of your spine. Muscles attach to the back of your skull and along your spine at your neck to help hold your head up. Other muscles attach near your ears and jaw to help rotate, bend and move your head. The whole system is designed to have your head be balanced with your ears roughly in line with your shoulders. The nerves that go down to your hands and arms come from the spine of the neck and travel under your collarbone and front of your shoulders.

Problems occur when we spend too much time with our heads not in good alignment with our spine. Our head weighs about 10 pounds. Moving the head forward of its center of gravity increases the amount of force our muscles have to apply to hold it up significantly. Those muscles start to wear out and then can tense up. Muscles that are positioned forward and are tight in the front of the shoulders and neck can also pinch the nerves that go down to your arms and hands. Add in more tension that may come from squinting due to glare from screens or clenching jaw muscles as we concentrate. All this tightness can result in pain, numbness, weakness and eventually difficulty with fine motor skills as well.

So what can we do to help break this cycle and help ourselves be healthier? We need to increase our awareness of our positions to improve our postures, stretch muscles to decrease tension and improve circulation and decrease other sources of tension where possible.

Start by looking at your positioning while you are working at your computer, tablet or phone. Is your head upright and balanced over your neck? Are your shoulders rounded forward or pulled back? Are your elbows bent more than 90 degrees? Is your wrist straight? Ideas to correct posture and decrease stresses are to change the height or angle of your device so you can see the screen without bending your head forward. This can be easy with a desktop – but do you need to balance your laptop on something so it is up? Do you need to get a pop socket or other holder to balance your tablet or phone on to decrease the tension in your hand as you hold it? Make sure you also look at having support for your elbows to rest on and support for your back to decrease the muscle power needed to sit and work.

Stopping what you are doing every 15-20 minutes to stretch and change the focus of your eyes can significantly decrease stress. Studies have shown that doing this actually increases productivity over the course of a task. Stretches should focus on gently moving into the direction of the posture you have been in. Here are a couple stretches to try:

  • Sit up straight, shoulder blades back, head up. Grab the edge of the chair you are sitting on with your right hand. Gently lean to the left with your upper body and tilt your left ear to left shoulder. Hold for 15 seconds. Switch sides.
  • Put your right arm out behind you, thumb pointing up. Tilt your head over toward your left ear. Open and close your hand.

Tension in the muscles can come from other sources than postures and how we move. Glare on your computer screen makes you squint your eyes which can increase neck tension. A screen that is reflecting overhead lights causes more glare. Loud noise in the background activates your fight or flight responses and increases stress. The stress response of clenching your teeth increases muscle tension in your face and neck. So how can we decrease these problems?

  • Look at settings for your screen such as brightness and contrast. See what setting is best for you.
  • Do you need to move the screen angle or move the screen to decrease reflection of outside light sources?
  • See what you can do to decrease background noise. Sometimes using earbuds or headphones to listen to quiet music can help you relax.
  • When you are stopping to stretch, also take a moment to monitor the tension in your face and jaw. Take a moment to take a deep breath and consciously relax those muscles.

Muscle aches and pains come with any activity that is repetitive or requires that we hold postures for long periods of time. We can do many things to manage and decrease these problems if we take the time to assess our positions and determine how we can make changes. A physical or occupational therapist can help assess body posture and problems to help make healthy changes.

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