• Paresha Kala and Ashley Ramsoonder

Prevent musculoskeletal strain with home ergonomics

Accustomed to ergonomic work stations in the office, employees at clients of Alexander Forbes Health Management Solutions are seeing increased musculoskeletal strain as they adapt to home office environments during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Poor seating habits result in back ache, shoulder and neck strain, eye strain and wrist strain.

Sitting for too long, looking down at your keyboard or smartphone with a flexed neck or hunched back, and slouching can put more stress on certain muscles and joints, forcing them to be overworked and causing fatigue with increased tension, which may in turn cause pain.

Equipment such as your chair, desk, monitor, keyboard and mouse can be adjusted to enable good sitting posture. Here are some simple changes that can be used with items in your home to adapt an ergonomic work station:

  • Good chair: An ideal seated position is one that allows your feet to rest on the floor while your pelvis and lower back fit snugly against the back of your chair, thus avoiding putting undue pressure on your spine. Use a chair with a backrest which supports your lower back and the use of a lumbar roll can be placed in the small of your back to help support your lumbar spine's natural forward curve. If you don’t have a lumbar roll you could make one from objects in your home:

  • Bath towel roll. Fold a towel twice lengthwise and then roll it up. Place two rubber bands around the towel to keep it rolled up, and then place it behind your back when sitting to help support your lumbar spine.

  • Paper towel roll. This roll is the perfect size to help support your back and your spine, and it will squish down just enough to maximize comfort while you are using it.

  • Use a small pillow. Place the pillow behind your back when you are sitting to support your spine's normal curvature and maintain proper posture.

The majority of kitchen and dining room tables are too high to use as desks, causing increased stress over the shoulder and neck area. If this is the case and your chair is not adjustable, you can raise this up by sitting on a pillow or cushion.

  • Support your feet: An ideal position would be having your feet firmly on the ground. Use an old telephone directory book or step stool to get your knees aligned to your hips. You may also move your seat up or down until your legs are parallel with the ground and your knees are even with your hips.

  • Elbows: Ensure that your arms to be bent around 90 degrees, when you place them on your keyboard, with your wrist in a neutral position, ensuring that your shoulders are relaxed, with your elbows near your sides or on the armrests.

  • Raise your monitor: The top of your screen should be aligned to your eye level, thus reducing neck strain. This can be adjusted by using books or old shoe boxes.

  • Use an external keyboard and mouse. It is preferable that the monitor is separated from the keyboard/mouse ensuring your wrist is in a neutral position. Your computer mouse should be on the same surface as your keyboard and should be within easy reach. Stretching to reach any items could cause muscle strain and fatigue

Some other ways to help reduce muscle and joint strain are:

  • Alternate your position between sitting and standing. Elevate your laptop on a laundry basket, or placing your laptop on an ironing board (extended to full height) or kitchen counter / breakfast bar still ensuring your posture is upright and maintaining the top of your screen in line or slightly below your eye level. An exercise ball can be used but for no longer than 15-20 minutes

  • Taking regular breaks, for one to two minutes every half hour. Regular visual breaks, looking away from the screen and sometimes at a different distance to the screen is helpful to reduce eye strain.

  • Working area: Make sure your working environment is well lit, but try to avoid/minimise glare on your screen to reduce eye strain.

  • Exercises and stretches that specifically target the back’s muscles may help reduce chronic back pain. This will also help to increase your back’s tolerance to static and dynamic exercises and provide it with good blood flow for optimal tissue hydration and nutrition. Targeting the lower back and nearby muscles can benefit the lumbar spine’s strength and flexibility. Should you already be seeing a physiotherapist or biokineticist, then this should be done in consultation with your therapist to avoid damage to your joints.

  • Aerobic exercise may also help reduce chronic lower back pain. In addition to helping strengthen your back and provide your tissues with essential blood flow, aerobic exercise may also decrease stress on your spine (as exercise helps you to control your weight) and decrease pain levels due to the release of endorphins. There are numerous options for engaging in low-impact aerobic exercise, including riding an exercise bike or walking. Remember to speak to your doctor first about any possible risk factors such as cardiovascular conditions.

The future of working may well be from home, and by following these tips to make your home office more ergonomically designed, you can reduce the overall strain on your neck and back.