By: Dr. Rebecca Van Heuklon, DPT, FAFS, FMR
Have you heard the saying that sitting is the new smoking? While sitting pales in comparison to the detrimental effects that smoking has on our health, studies show that sitting greater than 8 hours a day can increase the risk of early death and some chronic diseases, like cancer and cardiovascular disease, by as much as 10-20% according to the American Journal of Public Health. For this reason, getting up and moving is the best way to keep yourself healthy and reduce the risk of chronic diseases. It's also the best way to prevent neck, shoulder, and low back pain that are caused by staying in a prolonged, static position for too long.
Unfortunately, some jobs require sitting for the entire day without the possibility of being active. Many companies have provided their employees with standing desks or even treadmills to walk on while working at a computer, but these options may not be available at your workplace, or are not possible if you work from home or do frequent traveling for work. So, what then? The following are 5 tips to keep you neck and upper shoulders loose and reduce the pain and discomfort associated with prolonged sitting at your desk.
1. Get an ergonomic assessment of your workstation. Many employers contract with a physical therapist who can evaluate your desk and workspace to make suggestions on how to improve you posture and ergonomics. Take advantage if this option is available to you. If not, here are a few practical ideas. One tool that can be useful to prevent neck pain is utilizing headphones or a speakerphone rather than holding a phone between your head and shoulder if you need to type as you talk on the phone. Other features that can be modified at your workstation include changing the chair position, angle, or height; modifying your desk height; and adding an adjustable foot rest for support. Another common culprit causing pain is frequently looking to one side for a monitor or reaching to one side for a phone or cabinet repetitively, creating excess strain to one side of the neck and upper back. Your work station should be set up in a way so you can rotate to both the right and left side equally on and off as needed throughout the work day, i.e., phone is to the right, while your bills or papers you are referring to are on your left.
2. Check your computer set up. Situate your monitor directly in front of you when possible. Ideal positioning would place the top of the monitor somewhere between eye level and 2 inches below eye level. Your keyboard height should allow your elbows to be at your side with your forearms parallel to the ground. Also, if you transcribe frequently, prop or hang up the paper on a stand to limit looking downward for prolonged periods of time or repetitively looking up and down.
3. Set a timer. Get up and move every 30-60 minutes, even if it is simply to walk to the drinking fountain (aka bubbler for some of you out there) or bathroom. It is easy to get engrossed in a project and lose track of time, causing you to sit for hours without a break. Some find it helpful to set a timer or reminder alram on your computer or phone to remind you to get up and move. Some watches even have the ability to notify you when you have been inactive for too long.
4. Walk at lunch. Take advantage of the nice weather outside to get out and move. The activity and sunshine are good for the mind, body, and spirit. According to a study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports in 2015, participants who walked for 30 minutes, 3x/week over lunch are happier, less tense, more relaxed and more productive than non-walkers. In addition to those benefits, walking helps to extend and rotate the spine, which can loosen the neck and upper back muscles, as well as preventing joint stiffness in the spine.
5. Exercise in your chair. There are times when you are in a Zoom meeting or on a conference call when you are unable to get up from your desk to go for a walk. In these situations, the best option is to perform some movements and stretches at your desk. Here are some easy exercises you can do:
- Move your head down while tilting your head to one side to loosen the upper trapezius muscle, a common source of neck pain. You can also add an extra pull into the stretch with your hand for overpressure.
- Perform a backward lean over the back of the chair with your arms overhead to extend your spine and combat prolonged forward slouching.
- Reach overhead with both arms off to one side or into rotation right and left to stretch the mid-back, which can take stress off the neck and improve posture. Alternate hands to move your spine through its full range of motion.
- Prolonged slouching in a desk chair can cause the pectoral muscles in the front of the chest to tighten. Stretching these muscles at your desk can help open up your chest and improve your sitting posture. Anchor your hand on the edge of the desk and rotate your chair away to stretch the front of your chest.
If you continue to have neck or upper back pain despite following these tips, consider seeing one of the Doctors of Physical Therapy at MotionWorks Physical Therapy for an individualized evaluation, especially if you have tried heat and stretching for a week or more with no improvement. Call 920-215-2050 for an appointment or for an individualized ergonomic analysis to help you survive working from home.