Almost a year has passed since the covid-19 pandemic gripped the world, forcing businesses to close, and changing lifestyles irreversibly. For many, this meant a major shift from a routine 9-5, to an ultra-chaotic, somewhat surreal work from home situation. While this may have wrought havoc on mental fitness, nutrition, productivity, and even parenting, the one glaring issue that stood out was the way people’s posture suffered. Indeed, many were not prepared for the current norm, forced to use couches, beds, and bean bags as their office equipment.
Postural stress is an accumulation of strain on joints and muscles in the body, especially with regards to holding prolonged positions in less-than-ideal circumstances. This typically results in the most common symptoms that show up at any chiropractor’s office: low back pain, neck pain, and headaches. However, left unchecked, this situation can turn ugly. We’re all guilty of ignoring the signs of postural stress. We grease up with pain-relieving ointments, we crank up the hot water in the shower, and we stay in bed a bit longer. People often avoid doing anything about it, for fear of worsening the symptoms. Rest has a role to play, especially if your symptoms are brought on by repetitive usage or overuse, but as research shows, movement leads to improvement.
The science of being efficient at work is known as ergonomics. That’s a catchphrase that’s been thrown around many offices over the years, but it is actually a pretty serious profession that gears towards improving your ability to work pain-free. While there’s no such thing as ‘perfect ergonomics’ (and similarly no such thing as perfect posture), there are loads of benefits to earn by improving yours.
We’re going to address the most common work position—sitting in front of a computer. The “Rule of 90” is the easiest reference here. It’s quite simple:
Sit with your feet flat on the floor. Yes, both feet. Habitually crossing your legs, or sitting in a lotus position for long hours can have detrimental effects on your knees, hips, and low back.
Sit all the way back in your chair, and allow the chair to hold you upright. Any chair can be a fine piece of work equipment and even the most expensive chair can create pain if not used correctly.
Position your monitor so that the top third of your screen is at eye level. Make sure the monitor is directly in front of you, not off to the side. Multiple monitors—while it looks super cool—may actually create further neck pain as your head will have to rotate to one side more than the other.
If you’re positioned correctly, your ankles, knees, hips, and elbows should be at 90 degrees.
Bonus tip 1: Keep your mouse (if you use one) right beside your keyboard, it will save your shoulder from rounding forward and elevating upwards, major players in neck and shoulder pain.
Bonus tip 2: Buy yourself a Bluetooth or USB keyboard. This way if you have to elevate the screen for your laptop, you are not stuck reaching up and forward to type on your keyboard. The remote keyboard will allow you to maintain good ergonomics with your arm position while your neck can benefit from the elevated screen position (NB—a few books under your laptop serve just as well in elevating your screen as expensive laptop stands!).
The groups of muscles involved in postural stress are well documented. Most cases concern the upper half of the body, and is known as ‘upper crossed syndrome.’ The symptoms of this include a forward protruded head, rounded back and shoulders, and a slumped chest. Aside from the typical neck pain and headaches, this position can also create strain for the spine, accelerating arthritic processes. Long periods of time in this posture can also create much more serious issues including spinal disc degeneration, nerve compression, and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Sitting also can create a handful of issues for the lower body, and the postural stress associated with this is aptly named ‘lower crossed syndrome.’ Aside from low back pain, sitting in a slouched position can increase your strain on your lumbar spine, creating issues including sciatica, patellofemoral syndrome, and hip flexor strain. Left unattended, again this could pose serious risk to the structure of your spine, compressing discs and affecting blood flow.
In both upper and lower crossed syndrome, there are patterns of muscle tightness and weakness. For example, in upper crossed syndrome, someone with poor posture may have rounded and forward slumping shoulders. This is due to tight muscles in the chest (pectorals) and weak muscles in the upper back. The pectoral muscles dominate the movement and draw the shoulders forward, and since the upper back muscles are so weak, they offer no resistance in this movement. The remedy? Stretch tight muscles, and strengthen weak muscles. If the upper back were stronger, it would counteract the pull from the tight pecs. Similarly stretching the tight muscles would lessen the load being placed on the back, and ease pain almost immediately.
In general, we’re all susceptible to bouts of poor posture. It’s easy to forget to have proper ergonomics as you get engrossed in your work, book, or movie. There are tons of devices on the market to help improve your posture, but be aware that braces and straps only help temporarily. Even worse, using these devices over long periods of time can actually weaken your muscles and potentially make your situation worse or create a dependency on the device.
Standing desks are solid additions to any workspace, but they also have their own drawbacks. Prolonged standing has been known to create varicose veins and other blood flow related issues. If you use a standing desk, it’s a good idea to change positions every 30 mins, or use a stool to place one foot at a time on. This eliminates strain from the blood vessels and nerves entering your legs.
As a general rule, aim to get out of your chair every 30 mins for 1 minute. Changing your physical position can help with blood flow, recharge your muscles, and refresh your mind. Investing in good WFH equipment can help you avoid traps like working from your bed, couch, or dining table.
The only thing that can make postural change happen is consistency. It won’t make much of a difference if you apply these tips for a day and then ignore them the rest of the month. Make a plan, and stick to it for maximum results. Work will always be there, but your spinal health may not. Make good, conscientious decisions about your posture, and avoid the pitfalls of postural strain.
Dr. Prathap R. Addageethala, a certified chiropractor, is the Director and Head of Chiropractic, Atlas Chiropractic and Wellness, Bengaluru.