A Guide to a Safer Desk Environment for the Office Environment and Home
Innovation in technology has made the office environment, both at work and at home extremely important in the prevention of repetitive strain injuries (RSI). No longer are just product manufacturing line workers of the 1980’s and 1990’s the only people at risk for this type of trauma. Furthermore, not just the desk workers of the 2000’s are at risk. Each and every one of us subject ourselves to more and more repetitive stress while “internet surfing”, “gaming”, “texting” and other technologydriven, repetitive processes that we recreationally engage in.
A repetitive strain/stress injury or RSI, in a collective term used to describe nerve or musculoskeletal injuries that result from repetitive trauma (increased/prolonged force, improper/prolonged posture, and increased frequency/duration of a motion). These injuries are difficult to resolve because the body is not allowed to rest from the activity/posture. Common examples of “increased/prolonged force” is people who press down through their wrists excessively while typing on a keyboard. An example of “improper posture” may be how an office worker tucks one leg under the other while seated at their desk. “Increased frequency/duration” is best demonstrated by prolonged texting or gaming. The one commonality that all the types of RSI’s have in common is the description of “prolonged”.
This article will give you some helpful hints on how to help yourself if you find yourself experiencing joint pain at work.
First, you need to know the basics. For simplicity’s sake, I will be describing the “ergonomically correct” computer station since that can be the most problematic.
Seating should be 90-90-90. What that means is that while seated in your chair, your knees are bent at 90 degrees, your elbows are resting on the arms of your chair at 90 degrees and your hips are comfortably flexed to 90 degrees. If your work station chair has no arms then your elbows should rest in the same 90 degree position on your work surface. I don’t look like that at my work station you say? Well if you’re wealthy or work for a generous employer, you can purchase a fully adjustable, “ergonomically correct” office chair for the low, low price of at least $1000 or you can use some of these inexpensive hints. Most inexpensive office chairs can at least be adjusted up and down. Use this feature to get yourself into the 90-90-90 position. If after adjusting the height and getting your elbows at 90 degrees, you find yours feet don’t touch the floor, then use some object to bring the floor to your feet (i.e. thick book, short stool, phone book). This 90-90-90 position puts your joints in a relatively “neutral” position with the least amount of stress placed on them.
Wrist position is most important with typing/mouse maneuvering. A neutral wrist position is a straight wrist position with thumbs pointing up about 30-60 degrees (easier visualization is picturing those awkward-looking ergonomic keyboards). They’re not always the best solution for long-career typists. Generally if the wrist remains straight while typing on your keyboard, that position is sufficient in most cases. The mouse position is essentially the same as the typing position. If either causes an extended wrist position, just place something soft under the heel of your hand to make the wrist position straighter.
Monitor position is also important. It should be at eye-level once you have been properly seated. This reduces neck strain. Headsets for phones are very helpful if you use the phone excessively, to reduce prolonged stress on the neck.
It’s good to keep in mind that not only do we have to take care of ourselves at work but now with advancements in technology; we continue our computer work at home for recreation. The same things above apply to the home environment. Take the laptop off of the coffee table and create a functional office at home.
North America and the world, in fact, have created a multi-billion dollar industry that revolves around “proper ergonomics”. Many “ergonomically correct” tools have astronomical price tags and rarely fit everyone. A wise professor of mine once said something that has stuck with me for decades, “Scott…something made for everyone, fits no one.” If you have the financial resources, there are some ergonomic devices that are “fully articulated” which means they are fully adjustable. Some have an amazing ability to adapt to their environment and users. If not, a free phone book under the feet can be just as effective.
The most effective preventative measure you can take to protect your joints and muscles from RSI’s is taking a 10 minute break for every 2 hours of one continuous activity. During this break it’s important to stretch your body in the opposite directions of the posture you were in for the activity. For example, if you’re a desk jockey, stand and extend your back. Also, extend your arms overhead. You can stretch your wrists by flexing and extending them. Stretch your neck left, right, up and down. This sort of regimen is probably MOST important for gamers. Gamers can stay in positions and repeat hundreds of motions per minute for hours upon hours transfixed by video game. They may be young and their bodies healthy but even they can be victims of a RSI if pushed too far.
All these things are purely preventative by decreasing stress on your muscles and joints. As technology invades our lives more and more our bodies will become more and more susceptible to RSI’s. If you have experienced an RSI and with the above modifications still cannot decrease your discomfort, you should seek out medical assessment and treatment.