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Back pain relief, office ergonomics

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Upper back Pain:
My back hurt for months. Upper back, mostly my neck, spine and across my shoulder blades. I was getting headaches too, that felt like they were caused by tension in my shoulders, but now I feel fine! I'm sharing this hoping someone else can benefit.

Diagnosis:
I felt like I was stooping while I sat at my desk at work, the monitors were a bit low with no height adjustment so I was bending forward to look at them which made the pain in my back feel worse.

Health and safety studies suggest that the height of your chair seat is adjusted so when sitting with your feet flat on the floor and your lower legs vertical, your knees bend at roughly 90 degrees so your thighs are horizontal or sloping slightly downward, your back should be vertical and supported by the back of the chair, and the arms of the chair should be raised to the height of your elbows so as to just support your forearms, basically sit up straight.

The page at: http://www.globaltotaloffice.com/ggi_08/adjusting_a_chair.html gives a pretty good description of how to adjust an office chair for comfort, right up until step eleven where you forget all the settings you have made and change it all so it will fit underneath the desk.

All the other desk related instructions are about raising the chair or using a footrest if your feet don't reach the floor. None of them suggest what to do if you are too tall for your desk or how to dig a small trench in the floor so your thighs are actually touching the chair. I always wondered why many chair seats would tilt forward but not back (unlike the one in that link). No part of me ever touched the front of the seat as my knees were higher than the bit I sit on. Ignoring step eleven I now have my seat height correctly set for me, the whole seat gives support, the backrest supports my back and my feet rest comfortably on the floor.

This brings my chair arms to 27 inches off the floor when I am sitting on it; there is an inch or so spring movement as I sit down. I'm not massive, only just over six feet tall, but if I set the chair any lower than this my knees begin to hurt and my back feels like it's trying to curl up into a ball.

The top of the desk was 28¼ inches from the floor, and the clearance under the metal frame that runs along under the front of the desktop was 26 inches meaning the 27 inch high chair arms will not fit under the 26 inch desk.

20150601-091235.jpgThe desk top

20150601-131535.jpgThe metal rail underneath


20150528-085915-1.jpgThe chair arms will not fit under the desk

Because the chair arms don't fit under the desk I was sitting too far away from it and I had to stoop forward to reach the keyboard. I was constantly resting my upper body weight on my elbows and forearms while using the keyboard and the mouse. My shoulder muscles were permanently tense both trying to hold the weight of my upper body off my elbows and support my head at its inclined angle.

Giving myself a raise:
So I wondered what it would be like if my desk was higher. Looking underneath it was only supported on four small adjustable feet fitted at the four corners of the frame. The adjustment is only for levelling, not for raising or lowering the desk. Office chairs adjust easily but most desks seem to be a fixed height. Just for a quick cheap test I brought some offcuts of 2 inch thick timber into work and slipped them under the desk feet to raise it by 2 inches.

Remember to take the coffee cup off the desk before lifting it, and anything else that might fall, and be careful of your lower back while you're doing it. It's best to get someone else to assist either by doing the lifting for you or by daring to be the one underneath and slip the wood into place under the desk. You only need to lift one corner at a time and not very far off the floor. Position it so the desk feet are away from the edges of the wood and it makes a stable enough support as long as you don't intend to climb on the desk or perform any vigorous activity on or against it. The desktop is now 30 inches from the floor with a clearance underneath of just under 28 inches.

20150601-113216-1.jpgNearly two inches - timber is rough sawn at two inches and reduces by about a quarter inch when planed smooth.

20150601-153551-1.jpgPlace a block under each corner

20150601-131250.jpgThe new desk height

20150601-131357-1.jpgand found I could raise my chair a little more

Magic!
I sat down and was able to slide the chair arms under the metal rail and sit right up to the desk, resting my forearms comfortably on the desktop. I moved the keyboard and mousemat away from the edge and toward the middle of the desk, and found I could raise my chair a little more. The back of the chair is now supporting my back rather than only touching me if I leaned backwards. Sitting there felt like that first day when you move up to big school and the furniture is larger than you are used to. Any crumbs from eating my sandwiches at my desk now fall neatly onto a napkin on the desk instead of mostly down the front of my trousers.

Relief from back pain:
The change in desk height doesn't look much different, but after just one day of sitting upright and close to the desk my back felt good. My back felt good all evening when I was at home too, so much so that I was eager to get to work next morning to sit at my 'new' desk some more. After less than a week my back doesn't hurt, my spine no longer feels like I need to stretch it at the end of the day when I get in the car, and I feel taller when I walk.  What a difference two inches makes! These bits of wood are staying.

Adjust the monitor height:
Now I realised that the monitors are a little low. There is no height adjustment. The stands do allow the screens to tilt back or forward and I can angle them to look straight at them, but I am looking down at a steeper angle than I want to. Health and safety studies recommend that the top of the monitor should be roughly at eye level. A quick measurement indicated that the monitors needed to come up by about two inches.

A day's test with them balancing on some more bits of offcut timber let me know that this was more comfortable. There are commercially available monitor stands but these are about four inches high and have a fairly large desk footprint. I wanted something tidier and different and I managed to combine three of my hobbies, woodwork, computers, and guitars. I'll write up the construction method of my monitor stands in another article.

20150519-095751-1.jpg
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Comment
3 Comments
 

Expert Comment

by:Keith Bone
Excellent article that highlights the subtle risk of back injury from a poor workstation  setup.
There is a 'ripple effect' where back pain the the central issue resulting in workplace stress, absenteeism, low production and high employee / staff turnover.
Well done!

Keith
Lecturer in Work Health and Safety
Durack Institute of Technology
Western Australia
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LVL 38

Expert Comment

by:Tom Beck
I have been focused recently on finding the source(s) of my neck and back pain. A couple of weeks ago I dragged a lectern from the conference room into my office and use it periodically during the day as a standing desk. It helps relieve the neck and back pain, however, my feet and legs start to hurt if I use it too much : (

Another example: I have an unusual tall man's build in that my legs are disproportionately longer than my torso. My commuter car was causing me serious leg pain until I modified the driver's seat rails so I could move the chair three more inches further back than what the manufacturer intended. The pain relief was amazing. Now if I could just extend the steering column so I can comfortably reach the wheel : (

I'm going to modify my office desk ergonomics as a result of this article. My chair does not fit under my desk currently, but it will soon. With my long legs, I might need 6" blocks!!

Thanks for the tips!
0
 
LVL 39

Expert Comment

by:BillDL
This is an excellent article and clearly demonstrates the benefits of having a comfortable seating and monitor position for people who have to sit at a desk for many hours in a row.  Another difficulty arises where the desk is a shared one and the other user, or main user, user is diminutive in stature.

I have to sit at a desk for about 3 or 4 hours to do nightly reports after the work is finished in the warehouse and other areas.  I use the dayshift Manager's desk, and he is fairly small.  I used to be 6' 5" tall but I think I have shrunk to just over 6' 3" over the years.  With the chair raised to a maximum height the arms don't fit under te desk and, to make matters worse, the monitor has never been upgraded from a 15 inch one that the Manager never cleans.  I now have to wear reading glasses and I am convinced that straining to see the screen has accelerated the natural degradation of my eyesight and I often suffer neck and shoulder pain from the seating position if I have had to sit at the desk too long.

I purposefully take very frequent breaks, probably for about 5 or 10 minutes every 20 minutes, during which I walk around and loosen up my neck, shoulders, back, and legs.  I am fortunate that I am able to get away from the desk and that I am not stuck there all night, and I must look rather silly each time I stand up and do a freeform dance along the corridor.  If I was forced to sit there all night I would have insisted on a larger screen and a higher desk, although it would be up to me to reduce my middle-aged paunch so I could pull the chair closer to the desk.
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