Protecting Your Back at Work
Office work usually requires a great deal of sitting, which can increase the stress placed on the back. However, you can improve your back's tolerance to sitting in the office. Here's how:
Find the Perfect Chair
Start with a good ergonomically designed chair -- a chair designed to fit and support the body and spine. Ergonomically designed chairs can be expensive, but in the long run, not as expensive as a damaged back. Whether you have the most advanced ergonomically designed office chair or if you have to live with what you have, try the following suggestions to fit your chair to your spine.
Start by sitting all the way back in your chair so that your buttocks are up against the bottom of the back rest. Let your back lean against it so that the muscles can turn off. You may have been trained to type sitting up in a chair without leaning back against a support. This might be good posture, but it's very tiring for your back muscles. A footrest that lifts your knees to about the height of your hip joints will help you maintain the proper position. If your thighs are too short for the seat pan (the part you sit on), buy a cushion that will act like a spacer between you and the back of the chair. You should be able to sit all the way back yet still have some space between the backs of your knees and the seat pan.
Adjust the lumbar support to fit your low back's natural inward curve. Also, make sure that the lumbar support is set in the right place -- about the height of your belly button, not down behind your buttocks. If you do not have a lumbar support, add one by using a rolled up towel. The lumbar support is probably the most important feature of any chair, and various types can be purchased.
Support Your Arms
Many aches and pains in the upper back, and possibly even headaches, may result from the muscles of the upper back growing tired of supporting the weight of the arms. Armrests support the weight of your arms and allow your neck and shoulder muscles to relax. Some people use a wrist rest to support the weight of their arms when they do not have arm rests on their chairs. These can certainly help, but be careful to use them correctly. They are designed to support your wrists and arms when you stop typing, not while you type.
Set Up Your Workstation Correctly
How you treat your back at work is very important, but how you organize your office equipment is also important. These days, very few jobs do not involve a computer, and many computers are set up very poorly. Incorrect placement of your computer can cause neck, shoulder, and back pain and even headaches. Check the following to ensure that your computer is placed correctly. First, as you face your desk or workstation, make sure that your monitor and keyboard are set directly in front of your chest so that you do not have to turn your head to the side or twist your back. Second, ensure that the monitor is set at the correct height. For most people, this means that you should set the top of the screen at eye level. (Be sure that you have adjusted your chair and are using good posture before you make this determination.) Third, if you type a lot from paper documents, get a document holder that attaches to the side of your monitor. If the majority of your computer usage involves text entry from a document, you might consider placing the document holder directly in front of your eyes and the monitor slightly to the side.
If you must perform other tasks in addition to using a computer, such as reading or handwriting reports, it may be difficult to keep your monitor and keyboard in front of your chest; they take up too much valuable desk space. Because it is not practical to move equipment around every time you change from one task to another, you might want to consider what is called an articulating arm. This piece of equipment holds your computer monitor in front of your eyes but allows you to swing it out of your way so that you can use the desk space directly in front of you. When you need the computer again, it's as simple as swinging the monitor back.
If you use a telephone frequently, especially if you use it while you continue to work with your computer, you may need to consider the use of a headset. This lightweight piece of equipment resembles a pair of headphones, with a small speaker for one ear and a microphone attachment. A headset is a much better option than holding the receiver between your head and shoulders -- a position almost certain to cause neck stiffness and headaches. If you're on a tight budget, a less expensive option may be the use of a speaker phone if your office configuration and discussions allow it.
Now that you have positioned your computer and telephone close in your field of vision and reach, do not get too comfortable. You may still need to use other equipment in your office that requires you to move away from your desk. If you need to get a file out of a drawer, for example, use the wheels and swivel function on your chair to face the drawer, rather than twisting or reaching to get it. Better yet, stand up and walk over to it, because your back needs movement occasionally.
Have you ever caught yourself putting off certain tasks at work such as photocopying, sending a fax, or even going to get coffee until you can do them all at once? Without movement, even the best chair cannot keep your back happy; your back hates to sit and not move. If you must stay seated, change positions as frequently as possible by making subtle adjustments in how your body is positioned in the seat.
An even better option is to stand up as frequently as you can to talk on the telephone, confer with an associate, or send that fax. Force yourself to perform activities that require walking around more often. Don't be too concerned with your loss of productive time. When your day is done, you will probably find that it was actually more productive than a day spent putting up with the aches and pains that sitting creates.
Put Your Foot Up
If your job requires you to standing for extended periods of time, it can be very stressful to your back, even if you do not have to lift, push, pull, or carry anything. In fact, it is the lack of movement in standing that usually causes low-back pain for many people. In addition to the inactivity taking its toll, gravity relentlessly pulls downward, stressing the structures of the spine. The upper body's own weight compresses the disks, pushing their fluid out over time. When the disks compress, they lose their height, the vertebrae push closer together, and the facet joints end up bearing much of the weight of the upper body. In the short term, this can cause pain, but in the long term, it can wear the facets out prematurely.
So much for the bad news. If you have to stand for long periods, there are steps you can take to help your back. The best thing to do is alternate sitting and standing if you can, but if you can't, the next best choice is resting your foot on a prop. Try placing one foot at a time up on a footstool or any four- to six-inch block or box. When your foot is elevated, the muscles of the front of your thigh and pelvis relax. Because these muscles affect the bones and disks of your low back, when they are allowed to relax, they stop pulling down and compressing your spine. Alternate feet every few minutes so that both sides of your back can rest. Your back will be better able to tolerate the effects of prolonged standing if you put a foot up. Now you know why saloons have a rail attached to the bottom of the bar -- to act as a footrest for standing patrons.
Relax Your Back
After a long hard day at work, it is nice to come home and read the newspaper or watch some television. You already know that relaxation is good for your back, but you need to be careful that in an effort to relax, you do not put your body, specifically your spine, right back into the same posture and position it was in all day. If you work in the typical office environment, coming home and sitting on the couch or in the easy chair can have the same effect as a cast -- holding your back in a fixed position and robbing your spine of its flexibility. This kind of relaxation can make your back even more stiff and sore; what it needs is a change in position. See if you can find a way to read the newspaper or watch television without sitting in your easy chair. Try lying down on your stomach, resting either on your elbows or on a small pillow to raise your upper body off of the floor. This position introduces the normal inward curve back into your low back, and you may be surprised how good it feels. If your job has you standing on your feet much of the day, then sitting is probably a good activity for your back, but be sure that you are sitting in the proper position.
Though exercise can help your back and strengthen the muscles that support it, it is possible to go too far. In the next section, we will show you how to exercise to avoid injuring your back.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.