Keep aches at bay with ergonomics

These days, many of us spend long hours at a computer, either poring over documents in the office or in front of a laptop during leisure moments at home.

Thus, we sometimes place our body in a constrained position over long stretches of time, often carrying out repetitive movements without even realising it.

Therefore, the application of ergonomics to our work and home environments can help to prevent musculoskeletal injuries arising from repetitive or forceful movement and/or maintaining awkward or constrained postures.

Ergonomics is the scientific study of human performance at work using principles, data and methods to design a system in which our well-being and overall performance are enhanced.

About 40 to 50 per cent of patients we treat at the National Healthcare Group Polyclinics often come to us with issues of neck and back pain.

Neck and back pain are commonly caused by sitting too long in a fixed position.

In fact, something we have been seeing more of is “poke-chin posture”.

This describes a common postural variant which is becoming more prevalent today with increased computer usage and television viewing.

Spending long hours glued to a monitor is literally a pain in the neck – and back, and shoulders.

Most people hunch over their keyboard and point their head down.

Laptop users are particularly guilty, since the screen is close to their face and well below eye level.

Every inch their head projects forward puts an added pressure on their neck, which will result in stiffness and numbness of hands, progressively triggering headaches and lower-back pain.

I have seen patients as young as 12 who suffer from neck pain.

I always emphasise to patients the need to sit smart – your thighs and torso should form a 90-degree angle and both feet should be flat on the floor.

If you’re short, use a footstool.

Don’t consciously raise your chest, which will cause your back muscles to tense and lower back to arch, resulting in back pain.

Sitting at computers and desks all day puts increased pressure on your spine.

After 30 minutes of sitting, make sure you walk around to keep blood and fluids flowing to your spine.

Holding one position for a long period of time is tiring and makes it harder for you to maintain good posture.

Between long periods of sitting, you can practise “pause exercises” – stretches that help release tension in the body.

Our muscles tighten up when we hold one position for too long.

Holding ourselves in an unnatural position over a prolonged period of time can cause back and neck pain.

Finally, make sure you set up your work desk to encourage an optimal posture.

This is where the other aspect of ergonomics comes in:

Fitting the job to the individual, to make sure that the human and the environment suit each other in a manner that allows for optimal performance.

Arrange the items you need around your desk to minimise the distance you have to reach for them.

THERAPYDivide your workspace into three zones.

First, the primary work zone:

This is the distance from elbow to hand, where you place the things you touch on a daily basis.

Then there is the secondary work zone:

This is within arm’s reach.

Use this zone to position those items that you use frequently, but don’t need all the time.

Lastly, the reference zone:

This is outside arm’s reach.

Use this zone for your least-often-used items.

Try to avoid too much overreach.

It’s always good to keep your arms close to your body and make sure your wrists are in a neutral position on the keyboard.

Your keyboard and mouse should be on the same level, with your elbows bent at 90 degrees.

If you spend a lot of time on a laptop, invest in a separate keyboard and mouse so that you can maintain that healthy posture.

This way you can prevent injuries from awkward posture, upper-arm and shoulder discomfort and the potential for extended reaching for objects over long periods of time.

Moving around is vital, especially for desk-bound workers, as stretching relieves tension in muscles and makes them more conscious of their posture in general.

As we celebrate World Physical Therapy Day on Sunday, pause and think about the changes you can make in your daily routine.

Instead of picking up the phone or sending an e-mail message to a colleague two desks away, how about walking over to talk to him instead?

Taking short breaks and walking around will do wonders for those nagging aches and pains.


The writer is a senior physiotherapist with the National Healthcare Group Polyclinics with 13 years practice in musculoskeletal physiotherapy

 Source: My Paper 6 September 2013

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