5 easy ways to improve your desk ergonomics

5 easy ways to improve your desk ergonomics

By Sydney CBD Osteopath Dr Marcus Ng

If you work at a desk; proper desk ergonomics or set up is extremely important. In this blog we discuss: What is desk ergonomics? What is a microbreak?  Why do your shoulders/neck get sore from sitting? And how to set up your desk to avoid neck and shoulder pain.

The main purpose of having correct desk ergonomics is to minimise the soreness you get from long hours sitting or standing at the workstation. While there are desk set-ups that can help, ultimately it is the micro-breaks you take to reduce the extended amount of time spent sustained in any one position. Our bodies are design to be moved and not designed to be stationary.

What is desk ergonomics?

anatomical diagram of the spine, 33 vertebra with natural curves

Ergonomics is about the efficiency and comfort in the working environment. In the office space, the best thing to do is keep the spine in a neutral position whenever possible during sitting or standing. Achieving a neutral spine is simply taking advantage of the natural curves you already have in your spine to distribute the body’s load effectively while you are standing or sitting at work. At your desk this means ensuring your computer, keyboard, mouse and other daily-use items are set up in a way that encourages a neutral spine and not repetitive straining movements throughout the day.

What is a microbreak?

While having good ergonomics is highly beneficial when we are in a static position, it is even more important to move and change body position frequently to minimize the chance of your body to fall into a bad posture. This is achieved by taking micro-breaks. This can simply be small or short act of interrupting that stagnate position; whether it be a quick 1-2min stretch at the desk or a short walk around the office, to the bathroom or fill up a drink bottle. This will all help alleviate some of the stress and strains at the end of the day. Ideally, micro-breaks are taken every 30-45min and it is a great way to get your spine segments moving.

Can your osteo, physio or chiro help your desk posture?

Dr Marcus Ng educates a client on neck and shoulder pain due to poor posture and poor desk ergonomics

From time to time, even with good ergonomics and micro-breaks you may still experience some pain or discomfort. Manual therapy from an osteopath, chiropractor or physiotherapist can help you identify some areas of improvements, correct poor mechanical load distribution, reduce muscles soreness/tension and provide you with the tools and tips to minimise the discomfort. 

Why do your shoulders and neck get sore from sitting?

Altered spinal curves can result from prolonged sitting posture and in turn neck and shoulder pain. Your spine has curves naturally built-in, this allows distribution of weight and forces evenly during everyday activities. Unfortunately, when you are seated at your desk over a long time, it is very easy for the head to shift forward in front of your torso – taking it further away from your center of gravity. This in turn, creates more strain for the shoulders and neck as it’s trying to hold the head up. In this position, the shoulders are rounded forward as the chest muscles adaptively shorten. The muscles at the front of you neck are further strained when it’s put into mechanical disadvantage by the weight of the head. As the chest and head start to shift forward, the upper part of your neck will extend so you can still keep your sight. This ultimately only exaggerates the curve, adding pressure onto your joints at the neck and shoulders. Forming these poor sitting habits over a long period time, changes the shape of the natural curves in your spine and may lead to further complications

Photos of a  neutral spine or ideal posture compared to anterior head carriage or non-ideal posture

Right: head in the ideal position, achieving neutral spine.
Left: head further from the centre of gravity; sits in front of the shoulder causing more strain.

How to set up your desk to avoid neck and shoulder pain

  1. Shoulders should be relaxed, arms resting by your side. Desktop/bench height should allow your elbows to be resting at 90-100°. Sitting up straight, preferably with a chair with lumbar support, with the head over the shoulders and not poking forward
  2. Your screen should be centred where possible and at an arms length away. If the font is too small, consider wearing glasses and/or increasing the font size, so to avoid the head poking forward trying to read the screen. Top of the screen should be at or just below eye level.
  3. To create a firm and stable base, feet are uncrossed and planted on the ground, hips and knees at 90-100°. If your legs are a little short consider having a step or foot stool underneath for support.
  4. When working on a laptop, consider using a separate keyboard or screen to achieve position as mentioned in the first 3 points.
  5. Keep the things you use the most frequent, closest to you or in your immediate area.  For example, if you work predominately mouse-based, you can have the mouse closer to the centre of the workstation and/or have a shorter keyboard to minimise the need to have the arm outstretched off centre. 

If you know you have bad sitting posture and you want to break the habit, making the aforementioned adjustments may feel “unnatural” at first, but once settled in, you should feel an “ease” to how you are sitting. With proper ergonomics, sitting properly should not take a lot of effort.

“With proper ergonomics, sitting properly should not take a lot of effort.”

So next time you are at your desk, take a minute to check what you can adjust to improve your ergonomics. Notice how you body reacts to these changes and remember to take mini breaks away from your desk every 30-45minutes.


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