Usually, I write diet-related columns, but writing one on computer workstation ergonomics and posture is the need of the hour. Working with devices like computers and laptops is clearly indispensable for a modern lifestyle. But people who spend more than 20 hours a week in front of the computer are at risk of developing backaches, shoulder niggles and neck strain. And more often than not, these vague joint aches and pains may be linked to poor, awkward and repetitive posture.
Chronic aches and pains of the back, neck, wrists and shoulders affect the overall I-want-to-be-healthy effort. People who suffer from backaches tend to stop exercising for fear that this will worsen the stiffness or cause injury. This thought process leads to apathy and lowers motivation to stay healthy and spurs comfort eating binge episodes and weight gain. Self-treatment and the application of over-the-counter balms and muscle relaxants offer only temporary relief. Serious conditions of the back clearly require medical attention and/or physiotherapeutic intervention. Some of these conditions include slipped or herniated discs; cervical spondylosis; carpal tunnel syndrome (a condition where the median nerve in the wrist is affected, causing muscle weakness or tingling of the hand and fingers); and radiculopathy (a condition where nerve roots along the spine get pinched, causing burning or numbing sensations or radiating pain. Cervical spondylosis may, for instance, pinch a nerve that innervates the arms, which in turn could weaken gripping strength, reduce the range of motion of the shoulder joint or cause a numbing of the fingers).
Save your back: Sit right to avoid aches
These problems are the result of overusing several muscles, nerves, joints, cartilages, ligaments and spinal discs, and repetitive movements over long periods of time. The good news is that postures are easy to realign with the help of physiotherapy and/or simple daily exercises that strengthen postural muscles.
It makes sense, therefore, to stay on top of the game and learn how to master computer workstation ergonomics. Ergonomics is the science of fitting the task or the device to the human in terms of movement and cognitive function.
A fundamental prerequisite for keeping the spine healthy is to maintain its natural and neutral position—the soft “S” shape when viewed from the side. There are two forward (lordotic) curves in the neck and lower back and two backward (kyphotic) curves in the chest and hip—this way, the vertebrae remain pliant, strong, and the disc spaces and the alignment of the vertebral column remain intact.
Here’s how you can make your computer workstation more back-friendly:
• Sit with a neutral back, allowing your entire spine to stay in contact with the backrest at all times. Maintain the neck above the shoulders; avoid jutting the chin out. Keep the shoulders pressed down into the small of your back and avoid rounding them. Avoid arching the lower back. Keep the hips in contact with the backrest, all the way back in the chair. This way, you will maintain the vertical alignment of the head, neck and shoulders. Use a chair that provides lumbar support.
• Keep the wrists straight, not bent but floating —that is, not rested on anything—in line with the elbows and the palms. A lot of people have bad wrist posture when working on the computer. They can correct this by maintaining the alignment of the wrist.
• Take short, frequent breaks. Take a walk or stretch every 30 minutes, or so.
• Alternate tasks and processes to engage different muscle groups.
• Avoid staring at the screen for long periods —blink every 10-15 minutes.
• Place the top of the monitor so it is at or just below eye level. The screen should be at a distance of 18-24 inches from you.
• The keyboard, which will be drawn forward for use, must be exactly under the monitor—in line with it, not to one side.
• Place documents in line with the monitor or keyboard, not on either side. Looking to one side continuously can cause neck strain.
• Keep arms and elbows close to the body so they get maximum support and are bent at a 90-degree angle as far as possible—this helps avoid muscle fatigue and joint strain.
• Maintain your feet flat on the floor while bending your knees at 90 degrees. Use a foot support or stool, if you need to.
Madhuri Ruia is a nutritionist and Pilates expert. She runs InteGym in Mumbai, which advocates workouts with healthy diets. Next week, she’ll write about assessing your posture, and a basic back routine you can do at home.
Write to Madhuri at email@example.com