We’ve all experienced aches and pain after sitting at our computers for long periods.
Credit: Catholic Health Today
You know the drill . . . you’re working on a project that’s due tomorrow. You’re focused and making great progress. The next thing you know, several hours have passed and you’ve been working in the same position. As you begin to move, you notice that your neck really stiff and sore – you even have a slight headache. There are five primary factors that may have led to your neck pain.
1. Postural Strain
Maintaining proper posture is one of the most important factors in preventing neck pain while working at your computer. Many people only have the option to sit at their workstations. Unfortunately, sitting for several hours can cause significant postural strain in the neck, back, and shoulders.
As you begin to experience soreness, the muscles around your spine and shoulder girdle become tense or guarded. As you continue to work in the same position, these muscles fatigue and become more painful. The surrounding muscles start to contract to help compensate for the fatigue in the primary stabilizing muscles. As a result, you may experience significant pain and muscle guarding throughout the neck and upper back region.
How-To Create Better Posture
If you must sit to work, try to limit your time to periods of 20-30 minutes, then take breaks to move around or stretch. When sitting, make sure that you have a chair that can properly support your body. Some office chairs are highly adjustable and can accommodate a variety of body types.
Your low back should be supported to prevent slouching. The first step is to make sure that you sit in the chair fully with your low back touching the lower part of the chair back. The next step is to ensure that your low back curve is supported either by the curve of the chair back or a small pillow or cushion. Your hips and knees should be bent to approximately 90 degrees. Your trunk should be upright with the elbows supported at a natural height on the armrests.
Another option is to use a standing desk converter or an adjustable height desk. Either of these will allow you to easily change positions while working at the computer. When working in standing, your feet should be a comfortable distance apart (often shoulders width) and your trunk should remain upright. Don’t slouch or lean forward over your desk.
2. Desk Setup
Your desk is a critical component of your workstation, but it can contribute to your neck pain if it isn’t adjusted properly. If you have a standard sitting desk, the height of the work surface should allow you to type naturally on a computer keyboard. Otherwise, you should consider a keyboard tray or drawer.
If the desk is too high, you will compensate by shrugging your shoulders slightly to elevate your forearms, wrists, and hands to the appropriate level. After a while, your neck muscles will fatigue and begin to spasm. When the neck muscles become tight, the tension often translates to the smaller suboccipital muscles at the base of your skull. This can lead to a headache that starts at the base of your skull and progresses to the front as your symptoms worsen.
If the desk is too low, you’ll be forced to flex your trunk to use the keyboard. Working with your trunk flexed forward requires you to extend the neck more than usual to allow you to see the computer monitor. This position is usually called a forward head posture. Sitting this way shortens the suboccipital muscles at the base of your skull leading to muscles spasms, neck pain, and headaches.
- How-To Fix Your Desk Setup
Your desk surface should be adjusted to the height that allows you to reach the work surface easily when your arms are at your sides with the elbows bent to 90 degrees. The desk should also be large enough to hold your computer, keyboard, mouse, and any supporting materials. It should be deep enough to allow the monitor to be at least 20 inches from your eyes to prevent eye strain.
3. Monitor Setup
Your computer monitor is another possible cause of neck pain when you work at the computer for long periods. It should be set at or slightly below eye level to promote a neutral spine position for your neck. All monitors include a stock stand that comes attached to the screen, but many are not adjustable.
- How-To Create A Better Monitor Setup
For a monitor that is too short, prop it on a small shelf or box to reach to correct height. A better solution is to use a separate monitor mount that can connect to the back of the screen with a special mount. This usually allows for significantly more flexibility in setting the screen height and distance from your eyes.
The same rules apply to traditional sitting desks or standing desks. If you’re considering switching to a standing desk converter, some models have a monitor arm already attached. This ensures that you have monitor properly adjusted whether you’re standing or sitting.
4. Proper Office Chair
It is important to invest in a proper office chair, especially if you work mostly in a sitting position. There are thousands of models on the market, but ergonomic chairs offer the most adjustment flexibility and correct postural support.
- How-To Setup Your Office Chair
Your office chair should have a full back that extends from the seat of the chair to your shoulders or above. This will give the appropriate low back support to prevent slouching that can lead to a forward head posture. If the lumbar region of the chair doesn’t have enough built-in support, a full back allows you to use a small pillow or lumbar roll.
The arms of the chair should be able to adjust to the support the natural position of your elbows when your arms are at your sides. You want to avoid having the elbows too high or too low to prevent postural strain in the neck and upper back muscles. Virtually all office chairs have adjustable seat height, but it is important to make sure that the chair height fits well with your desk height. Other chair options can include adjustments for tilt, seat depth, and seat height to improve the fit of your chair and to prevent postural strain.
Stress is often overlooked as a source of neck pain while working, however, it can amplify the effects of the other factors. When we experience stress, our shoulders begin to elevate (or shrug slightly) as part of our fight/flight response. This position activates and fatigues the muscles in the neck and upper back leading to the muscle guarding described above.
- How-To Relieve Stress
Stress management techniques can have a significant effect on reducing neck pain while working. Setting realistic due dates and breaking projects into smaller, actionable steps will help you avoid the pressure of working against the deadline. Adopting a daily mindfulness meditation practice is a great way to step back from your work and decrease stress.
If you tend to experience headaches that are associated with postural strain, you can benefit from performing stretching exercises and a positional release technique for the suboccipital muscles. To perform the positional release technique, you’ll need a small towel roll or a couple of tennis balls in a sock.
Lie on your back in a quiet, dark room where you will not be interrupted for 5-10 minutes. Place the towel roll or sock with tennis balls under the base of your skull allowing it to press gently against the suboccipital muscles. As you lie in this position, focus your breathing as you take slow, deep breaths for 5-10 minutes.
Putting It All Together
Neck pain is one of the most common musculoskeletal conditions reported after working at a computer for long periods. It is usually caused by a combination of postural strain, desk setup, monitor setup, seating, and stress. The key to reducing your neck pain is to determine which of these factors are related to your symptoms. Your plan of action should ensure that your equipment is set up properly and modify your workflow as needed to prevent postural strain.
By Bud Ward
This article first appeared in Beyond the Office Door.