Ergonomics affect everyone, especially if you sit at your computer for extended periods of time. You don’t need an in-home expert if you follow a few simple rules to keep yourself healthy.
Believe it or not, the proper way to sit while working at your computer is not reclining against a beanbag on the floor with a keyboard in your lap. Ergonomics isn’t just for corporate cube dwellers. Everyone needs a comfortable workspace—and if you’re in front of your computer as much as we are, this is doubly true.
If you’re one of the millions of PC users who experience frequent wrist, neck, or back pain, properly setting up your workstation is something you need to do now. Pain and discomfort can get better, but only if you take steps to improve your environment and consult a doctor. If you haven’t had any workstation-related pains, optimizing your desk can prevent them from ever occurring.
We’ve done all the research for you. We consulted a variety of ergonomic experts to compile our most complete list of ergo advice ever: Dr. Nancy Baker, an occupational therapist with the University of Pittsburgh; Michael Abramson, co-founder of HealthyComputing.com; and chiropractor Pam Adams of Life Chiropractic College West. Spend 10 minutes and take their advice. Your radiocarpal joint will thank you!
Setting Up Your Chair and Desk
Experts agree that your chair is the single most important piece of equipment in your ergo-arsenal, so if you can afford it, spring for the works. Your seating scenario needs to fit both you and your environment, which means you need a chair that’s as adjustable as possible. Here’s how to adjust the chair:
1. Adjust the seat height until your arms bend at a 90 degree angle when your lower arm is level with the keyboard. If your desk is too high, consider installing a keyboard tray underneath the desk, which can make this adjustment much easier.
2. Now, if you’re very short, your feet may be dangling. Add a footstool or some other stool-like object so your legs are supported.
3. Sit back in the chair so your entire back is supported from the shoulder blades on down. Again, if you're too short for the chair and you can’t use the back rest without your feet hanging down, place a cushion behind you. A lumbar support is great if your chair has one. If not, try putting a rolled up towel between your lower back and the backrest.
4. Finally, adjust the armrests so they support your elbows at the 90 degree angle you set up previously. Don't rest your elbows on the desk. As for posture, sit up straight or recline a bit, whatever works for you. The important thing is that you’re comfortable and that the critical points of your body are supported and aren't subject to constant stress.
As a final note, remember that the area under your desk shouldn’t be a storage space. Keep it clear so you can move your legs and stretch them out from time to time.
Setting Up Your Keyboard
The goal with your keyboard is to keep your palm from twisting in any way, either back toward the wrist or side-to-side, toward the pinky or thumb. Lay your hand and wrist flat on the desk with your fingers curled, as if lightly holding a ball. This (called the “neutral position”) is how your hand should look when you’re typing.
To get your hand in the neutral position, first you’ll want your keyboard as level as possible. Don’t use the tabs on the underside to raise the rear of the keyboard, as this increases stress on the wrist by forcing an incline out of the neutral position. (Some fancy keyboards actually offer “negative tilt” and tilt away from the user.)
Next you want to get your arms as parallel as possible to avoid the twisting that will happen by forcing your fingers all together on a cramped, straight line. This is why split keyboards were invented, and if you’re especially—ahem—wide and can’t get your arms close together, try one out. Some people find these keyboards so hard to use, though, that they end up becoming stress creators instead of stress eliminators.
Finally, use a wrist rest if you type with your palms touching the desk, as most people do. Make sure it’s made of a soft material, which will help eliminate stress on the palm muscles and bones.
Setting up Your Mouse
Most ergonomic experts say a trackball is easier on the body than a standard mouse. The frequent movements that mousing entails can overwork the joints in your shoulder and part of the back, which is simply not designed for the small, precise movements that mouse work entails. A trackball relocates these movements to the fingers, which are better equipped for the strain.
Whether you use a mouse or a trackball, keep your mouse as close to your keyboard as possible. The further you have to stretch your arm to reach the mouse, the more stress you place on a whole panoply of muscles in your shoulders, upper back, and neck.
Again, whether you use a mouse or a trackball, position your armrest so your arm can remain at a 90-degree angle when moving the cursor. Make sure you keep your elbow supported as well.
Setting up Your Monitor
Reach your arm out directly in front of you. Drop your eyes about 15 degrees. That’s roughly where the center of your monitor should be if you have good vision and a decent display. Try tilting the monitor back slightly in order to improve visibility.
The distance from your monitor to your eyes is flexible and is largely dependent on your eyesight and the size and resolution of the display. But if you’re having trouble reading small text, try decreasing the resolution or consider getting your eyes checked before you start inching the monitor closer to your face.
The relative angle between your head and your display, however, is far more important than height and distance: Your monitor should be straight ahead of your body, not off in a corner. Some foolish people put their monitor to one side of their desk and crane their head in order to see it. This is one of the worst things you can do for your neck; a few hours of working like this will almost certainly land you in agony.
Special Concerns for Laptop Users
Laptops let you work and play anywhere, but their limitations can be murder on your body. We don’t want to discourage you from using a notebook while you hang out on the sofa, but take a few precautions when you do.
Use your laptop at a table or desk if possible. This way you should be able to follow most of the advice in this article, aside from adjusting the screen height.
If you must flop on the couch to work (and we can hardly blame you), adjust your body appropriately so your plush comfort doesn’t turn into awful RSI pain. If your laptop is indeed in your lap, make sure it’s supported and isn’t wobbling around when you type. Using a laptop tray like the Lapinator will help stabilize the machine while keeping your bits and pieces from getting too hot, which can cause serious fertility problems (gulp!) in addition to uncomfortable sweatiness in the pants department.
Next, support your arms. It’s easier than you think. Just take the pillows from the couch and wedge them on each side of you, under your elbows. Finally, tilt your monitor back a little more, to alleviate some of the strain your neck experiences by having to bend so far.
Splints and Braces
Do arm braces and splints do any good? The logic behind these products is that they force you to keep your wrist in a healthy computing position, so you don’t have to consciously think about maintaining the appropriate posture. And if your doctor has prescribed wrist splints for you, you should definitely follow her instructions.
But for many people, splints and braces can do more harm than good. Many users self-diagnose carpal tunnel syndrome and buy drugstore splints at the first sign of pain. But using them soon becomes problematic, as the splints interfere with “good” motions along with “bad” ones. The result is that wearers can fight and strain against the splint, causing them to overcompensate to make what would otherwise be a simple movement. This can actually make pain worse instead of better.
Unless a doctor directs otherwise, spend your time and your money on properly configuring your workstation instead of buying splints.
Breaks, Stretching, and Exercise
After a long, cramped flight, you stand up and feel sore. Staying in one position for too long—no matter what you’re doing—is bad for your bod. It’s important to remember to move a little, even if you’re in the eighth hour of that World of Warcraft session.
Experts offer a variety of tips on how often you need to move around. HealthyComputing.com posits the 20/20/20 rule: Every 20 minutes look away from your monitor for 20 seconds, and look at something at least 20 feet away. But Baker says that you should actually stand up every half hour and do some kind of stretching or walking around. You might as well combine the two and take regular, 20-minute breaks if it’s at all possible. Get a drink, take out the trash, eat a Cheeto. Just do something to keep your muscles limber.
Throughout the day (or night), fiddle with your workstation. Make tiny modifications by tilting the monitor a bit, moving the keyboard slightly closer to you, or raising your armrests slightly. This gets your body into different positions and keeps you flexible.
As for stretching, you can find a variety of stretching regimens online and in books written specifically for computer users. But Adams offers “the most important stretch” she gives her patients, the chin press.
“Sit on the edge of the chair, feet flat on the floor. Lift the breastbone upwards and tuck the chin into the throat as if you were soldier standing at attention. This should be uncomfortable but not painful. Count to 10. Relax. Repeat whenever you feel tension in your neck, upper back, or shoulders.”
Try it. It works!
When to See a Doctor
Despite the horror stories and media reports, carpal tunnel syndrome isn’t as common as you might think. Your hand might hurt because of a neck problem, with pain referring down your arm. You might just be sore from doing a lot of work, and tomorrow it could pass. Self-diagnosing yourself with serious illnesses is unproductive and dangerous.
When should you give in and see a professional? Occasional discomfort that goes away soon after you’ve finished working is generally OK. It’s when problems get more severe that you need to make an appointment with a physician. Specifically, if you:
* Experience constant pain that doesn't get better quickly after you stop using the computer.
* Wake up at night in pain.
* Find that your fingers are turning blue or feel cold to the touch.
* Experience numbness in your extremities (any numbness calls for an urgent response).
In a nutshell, if you experience any chronic pain in the fingers, neck, or back, pain that feels severe, or pain that keeps recurring, it's time to see a doctor. Tell her Maximum PC sent you.