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Working with Papers at Your Desk and Neck Pain

If you’ve been following my posts, you’re starting to realise that I keep harping on about how common neck pain is among office workers.  During my pre-corporate practice days, lower back pain and knee injuries were the most common ailments I treated.  Once I moved into the corporate environment though, I was totally amazed at the high incidence of neck pain I encountered.

There are various reasons for this high incidence of neck pain in an office environment.  One large part is people’s posture while they work at their desks day in and day out (read my post on 4 monitor positions to cause neck pain).  Another reasons for this higher incidence of neck pain is the high stress levels people are exposed to in the modern day office environment (read my post on stress and neck pain).

More and more computers are taking over and we’re working with less and less paper in our offices.  A completely paperless office though, has not yet arrived for most of us.  Does it really matter?

Who of you find yourself constantly referring to papers, writing on documents, capturing data from sheets and then working with the information on your computer as part of your job?  I find this quite common among book keepers, data capturers, etc.

ergonomics, neck pain, documents
“Writing and Typing” by CS Body Health cc. All Rights Reserved. 2016

How does working between papers and a computer increase your risk of developing neck pain?  There are a number of factors to consider in these scenarios.

  • When people work with papers/documents, I find few people actually have a proper document holder to hold the paper/document at eye level.  Instead, I find that people are placing the papers/documents on their desk instead, causes people to bend their neck for long periods of time during the day, increasing the risk of developing neck pain.  The solution is to use a document holder which will allow you to keep the papers/documents that you are working with at eye level if there is no need to write on them.  If there is no money in the office for a document holder, rest the paper/document against the computer screen and use a stapler to keep it there.  It works just as well and is free.
ergonomics, document holder, neck pain
“Creative Use of a Stapler for a Document Holder” by CS Body Health cc. All Rights Reserved. 2016
  • If there is a need to write on documents, I find that people often tend to place them flat  on their desks, forcing a bent neck posture which increases the risk of developing neck pain.  If you do need to write on paper/documents while working on your computer at the same time, grab an arch-lever folder that will slant upwards like the old school desks when we were in primary school.  This will allow you to keep a more upright posture while you lean on the folder and make notes on your paper/document.  You can then flip it back onto your chest when you need to type, and then flip it back down over the keyboard when you need to write again.  It’s a slightly irritating thing, especially when you’re not used to it, but, before throwing out the idea, weigh up the pros and cons of getting used to working like that versus experiencing frequent bouts of neck pain.  

 

  • I also find that when people are working with documents on their desk, they may push their computer screens back and out of the way or move their computer away to one side to allow them space to work on their desks.  Pushing your computer far away from you and placing documents on the table between yourself and your computer and keyboard will create a poking chin posture, which is a high risk posture for developing neck pain (read my post on spinal posture and pain).  Placing your computer screen to one side is another high risk posture for developing neck pain.  Both postures create compressive forces on neck joints resulting in an increased risk of developing neck pain.  The solution here is the same for the scenario above: use an archer-lever folder as well as bringing the computer screen back to a position straight in front of yourself and to the correct distance from yourself when you work (read my post on how to to correct the distance of your computer screen to reduce neck pain).
"Using an Arch-lever Folder as a Portable Writing Desk" by CS Body Health cc. All Rights Reserved. 2016
“Using an Arch-lever Folder as a Portable Writing Desk” by CS Body Health cc. All Rights Reserved. 2016

 

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Is Your Computer Monitor Positioned Too Far Away from You?

Neck and lower back pain are such common complaints that we all know someone (if it’s not ourselves) who has experienced at least one of these complaints.  There are many causes for neck or lower back pain.  These can include different types of injuries, disease processes, genetic predispositions, and most importantly and commonly of all, our posture.  Our posture at work and our posture at home and at play.

Our work posture is getting more and more attention, especially since the advances in technology have relegated most of us to work behind a computer for long hours each day.  There are a host of things to consider in our work environment that can negatively affect our posture and cause our neck or lower back pain.

Part of my job is going around performing office ergonomics for people.  One of the most common things I hear is people blaming their chair for their neck or lower back pain.  Most often, however, this is not correct and the real culprit is the monitor and where it has been positioned on the desk.  Luckily, this is a much cheaper and easier solution to the problem.

Your poor monitor position (read my post on 4 poor monitor positions that cause neck pain) is definitely one of the first places to look if you suffer from neck or lower back pain and you think your work posture is to blame.  There are a number of factors to consider in relation to your monitor position, but one very important and neglected element is the correct monitor distance that your monitor is positioned away from you while you work.

If your monitor is positioned too far away from you, you will find yourself leaning forwards in order to see your screen better, creating all sorts of problems in your spine (especially in your neck and lower back) and over activating your shoulder muscles, all leading you down the path of aches and pains.

Monitor Positioned too far
Image by US Navy under Public Domain

 

So what is the correct distance that you should place your monitor?

Generally, your monitor should be positioned a lot closer to yourself than you think it should.  And if you don’t believe me, ask yourself why you keep leaning forwards when you work.

How do you determine the correct distance that you should position your monitor at?  I call it the “Frankenstein” test.

  • Firstly, position your chair as close to your desk as possible while your arms and wrists are still able to comfortably work on your keyboard and be supported with an elbow angle of 90-120 degrees.  (In order to get close enough to your desk, you might need to adjust your armrests.  Generally I find that most armrests get in the way of the desk when you want to come closer, so one solution is to raise your armrest so that it just slides onto the surface of your desk, allowing you to bring your chair closer.  If you are unlucky enough not to have adjustable armrests and your armrests are really stopping you from bringing your chair sufficiently forwards, I recommend getting your building maintenance to remove them.  Use your desk for your arm support instead).
  • Then, lean backwards against your backrest and replicate Frankenstein’s outstretched arms – where your fingertips end, that is where your screen should be.

Closer than you think?  Give it a try and remember to keep leaning back against your chair’s backrest.  Your backrest is there to help keep you in good posture while you work.  A combination of those two factors (leaning back in your chair and having your monitor at the correct distance away from you) will go a long way to reduce your neck or lower back pain associated with poor working posture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How to Correct a Low Computer Monitor Position Causing Neck Pain

So,  you’ve discovered that your monitor (laptop, tablet or desktop computer screen) is positioned too low on your desk (read my post about 4 monitor positions that cause neck pain) causing you to bend your neck for too long, straining your neck.  How can you go about correcting this and ease up the strain on your neck causing your neck pain?

“Catching Up On Email…” by Ed Yourdon under Licence CC BY 2.0

Well, firstly, the changes to your monitor are entirely dependent on the type of technical device that you use.  There are, however, certain principles that apply to all types of devices with a monitor that you might use that you need to be aware of in order to adjust your monitor correctly and reduce your neck pain.

  1. You can’t use the same device’s keyboard, mouse (or touch pad) and monitor and sit in the correct position for your body.  It’s inevitable that this scenario will place you in a really poor posture when using your device, and if this posture is prolonged, it will likely result in you developing neck pain.
  2. Your monitor needs to be at eye level, allowing the curve in your neck to remain neutral (chin level, not tucked in or poking out).  Your cervical lordosis (neck curve inwards as in the xray below) is pivotal for good posture behind your device.
cervical curvature
“Medical X-Rays” by Nevit Dilmen under Licence CC BY 3.0

3.  You will need some assistive device (see what assistive devices we have in stock) to help raise your monitor to the correct height.  Some desktop monitors have a built-in system that allows you to move the monitor up or down as desired, but most do not.

Let’s consider each scenario separately:

If You Use a Desktop Monitor

If you are using a normal, old fashioned desktop monitor, this will be one of the easier scenarios to raise your screen to the correct height.  Just use books (it’s cheaper), a monitor raise or an adjustable monitor arm (check our our monitor raise and adjustable monitor arm in our shop).

 

Computer ergonomics
“Computer Workstation Variables” by Yamavu under Licence CC 1.0 (Public Domain)

If You Use a Laptop

People who use laptops sit in terrible postures unless they use a laptop raise (check out our laptop raise) or books to elevate the laptop monitor to eye level and use a second keyboard and mouse.  Please ensure that you purchase a proper laptop raise that elevates the monitor sufficiently and doesn’t do a half job and leave you bending forwards over your machine.

You absolutely cannot use the monitor and keyboard on your laptop at the same time unless you’re lying backwards on your couch or bed.

 

Good laptop raise setup
“Alu MacBook Desk shot” by David under Licence CC BY 2.0

If You Use a Tablet

Tablets are an even greater ergonomic risk than laptops.  Their screens are small and their keyboards laughable.  If you’re crazy enough to use it like a working computer, you will have to get a tablet stand (and more than likely need to raise even that up on books to get it to the right height) as well as a second keyboard and mouse (check out our tablet stand).

Tablet Raise
Image by Pixabay under Public Domain.

This tablet raise/stand allows you to use your tablet like a computer, however, it will still need to be raised further on books etc to get the screen to eye level.  In addition, you will also need a keyboard and mouse to allow for proper ergonomics and to avoid unnecessary back and neck pain.

 

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4 Computer Monitor Positions that Give You Neck Pain

Are you an office worker suffering with neck pain?  If so, you’re not alone.  Office workers are one of the population groups most at risk of developing neck pain, with an incidence of around 55% in some countries.

If you are an unfortunate office worker suffering from neck pain, is there something that you can do yourself to reduce or prevent your neck pain rather than popping pills or going to see your OMT trained Physiotherapist?

Neck Pain
Image by J. Heuser under Licence CC BY 3.0

The answer is, yes, of course there is!

The first and simplest things that you need to consider is where your monitor is positioned in relation to yourself on your desk (check our our desktop software designed to help you correct your computer ergonomics).  A poor monitor position is one of the most common reasons why office workers suffer from neck pain associated with poor posture.  It’s happily also one of the easiest things for to change to help improve poor posture that could be causing your neck pain.

Consider the following 4 monitor position scenarios.  Do you see yourself in any of them?  All of these poor monitor positions are high risk postures for creating neck pain.

  1.  In this scenario, your monitor (laptop or desktop computer screen) is positioned too low on your desk causing you to bend your neck for too long, straining your neck and resulting in neck pain.  This is quite common, especially for people working on a laptop or tablet.  Mobile computer devices are handy to have, but they all need assistive ergonomic devices (check out our shop to see our assistive devices in stock) to help you work in a safe posture.  Read this post on correcting a low monitor position to help you correct this problem.

 

"Catching Up On Email..." by Ed Yourdon under Licence CC BY 2.0
“Catching Up On Email…” by Ed Yourdon under Licence CC BY 2.0

2.  In this second scenario, your screen is positioned too high for you, causing you to raise your chin and compress the joints in the back of your neck causing you both neck pain and headaches.  This monitor position will cause neck pain faster than any of the others and is one of the worst postures possible for a computer worker.  This posture is common in people who are aware that a computer monitor often needs to be elevated, but are unaware of their own posture and what the correct position for one’s head and neck needs to be to prevent or reduce neck pain.  Correct your position asap (You can use our desktop software to help you correct your computer ergonomics).

 

Poor monitor position, poor ergonomics, neck pain, monitor positioned too high
“Starcraft II: Triple Monitors” by Kyle James under Licence CC BY 2.0

3.  Here, your screen is positioned too far away from you, causing you to lean forwards away from your backrest and poke your chin out.  This posture will cause both headaches and neck pain.  Read this post on correcting a monitor positioned too far away to help you correct this problem and reduce your neck pain.

Poking chin posture
“Man uses laptop” by Bill Branson under Public Domain

4.  In this last scenario, you are working a lot from notes/papers/files and don’t use a document holder.  This means that you are looking down too often during the day and this constant bending of your neck puts you at a very high risk of developing neck pain (check out our ergonomic software).

Alternatively, you’re working a lot from notes and have positioned them on your desk between your keyboard and monitor causing you to push your monitor too far away and take a poking chin posture.

Both of these postures will create neck pain and possibly headaches.

 

Monitor Positioned too far
Image by US Navy under Public Domain

I will write about how to correct these postures and position your monitor correctly in the near future, make sure you come back to find out how you can help yourself reduce your neck pain.

 

 

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How the Position of Your Computer Screen/ Tablet Can Cause Neck Pain

You’re stuck at your desk behind your computer, hour after hour, day after day looking at that darn screen!  “This can’t be good for my health”, you think.  Actually, you are right.  It’s not.

Besides the glare and fatigue, and let’s not mention the stress (all of which add up and contribute to your frequent aches and pains) (read my post on stress and neck pain), there is something else, something mechanical which WILL end up in neck pain.  Simply bending your neck for too long (read my post on 4 computer monitor positions that cause neck pain).

Bending your neck is so common and so ordinary and most of us do it for far too long during the day, which is why at least a 30 -50% of us will experience neck pain.

Why do we bend our necks for too long increasing our risk of developing neck pain? The most common reason that we bend our necks for long periods of time during work hours is because our computer screen is positioned too low on our desk.  Alternatively, if we’reworking with a tablet (or smart phone) in our hand for far too long, these devices with their small screens and integrated keyboards cause us to work in a hunched over position with our heads hanging down.  Prime posture for developing neck pain (read my post on how to correct a low monitor position causing neck pain).

Another reason is because we are working with papers on our desk as well as trying to type on our keyboards, or because we can’t touch type (read my post on touch typing and neck pain).  All these things cause us to bend our necks for too long.

"Catching Up On Email..." by Ed Yourdon under Licence CC BY 2.0
“Catching Up On Email…” by Ed Yourdon under Licence CC BY 2.0

Researchers have discovered that bending your neck for more than 70% of your working day will double your chances of developing neck pain.

So, what position should your neck be in when you work? What posture will help prevent you from suffering from neck pain? Remember that spinal s-curve? (read my post on spinal posture and back pain)

Vertebral Column by Unknown and is licenced in the Public Domain

Vertebral Column by Unknown and is licenced in the Public Domain

Well, that spinal s-curve needs to be maintained when you’re looking at your screen/laptop/tablet/smart phone for extended periods of time.  It also needs to be maintained when you’re typing or working on papers!  (check out our store for assistive devices to help place your monitor/tablet in the correct position).

"IMG_3771" by Joe Loong under Licence CC BY 2.0
“IMG_3771” by Joe Loong under Licence CC BY 2.0

In order to maintain your spinal s-curve and the curve of your neck, you need to raise the screen of your monitor/laptop/tablet to eye level using books, monitor raises, adjustable monitor arms, or a proper laptop raise/ tablet docking station (I’ll discuss this further in another post) to achieve this.  If you’re lucky, some desktop monitors are adaptable, allowing you to elevate them without aids.  Ensure that when they are on their highest setting and that your monitor is in fact at eye level, otherwise you still need some books etc to get it to the correct height.

Need more help with computer ergonomics?  Check out our ergonomic desk exercise software.

All in all, make sure that your neck is in a good position while you work if you’re suffering from neck pain or want to avoid suffering from neck pain.

 

Reference:

Ariens G.A.M., B. P. (2001). Are neck flexionk, neck rotation, and sitting at work a risk for neck pain? Results of a prospective cohort study. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 200-207.

Cagnie B., D. L. (2007, May). Individual and work related risk factors for neck pain among office workers: a cross sectional study. European Spine, 16(5), 679-686.

Guzman J., H. E.-J. (2008). A new conceptual model of neck pain linking onset, course and care: The bone and joint decade 2000-2010 task force on neck pain and its associated disorders. Spine, 33(4S), S14-S23.

Guzman J., H. S.-J. (2009, February). Clinical practice implications of the bone and joint decade 2000-2010 task force on neck pain and its associated disorders. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, 32(2S), S227-S243.