Computer Ergonomics Tips for Desk Workers

Updated on August 3, 2018
rmcrayne profile image

Rose Mary has been an occupational therapist since 1987. She has extensive experience treating conditions of the hands and arms.

Adjust your workstation to improve your posture and reduce injuries and pain.
Adjust your workstation to improve your posture and reduce injuries and pain. | Source

My journey to becoming a computer workstation ergonomics expert began around 2002, when my occupational therapy practice shifted from pediatrics to clients with hand and upper extremity complaints. This was compliments of the Air Force, meaning they moved me! I realized right away that the overwhelming majority of my clients were desk workers. I also realized right away that ergonomics was always an issue.

How to Improve Your Computer Ergonomics

I taught a two-hour computer ergonomics class for my clients 1-2 times a month. Because most clients want relief as soon as possible, I developed a list of quick tips to get clients on the way to pain-free desk work. I have expanded these strategies from the original bare-bones bullet format, but they are still just general suggestions. The complete rationale and benefits behind the strategies will take multiple articles! These strategies are highly effective in relieving an array of hand, arm, neck, and back pains.

These strategies are also highly effective in treating and relieving presumptive carpal tunnel syndrome. (Yes, I am suggesting it’s not CTS, and “nerve” tests don’t impress me much. But another day another article.) I have a keen knack for pain related to desk work, having spent long hours at a desk myself. There are few symptoms that clients have described to me that I have not experienced myself.

In this article, you'll find tips on how to improve your computer workstation ergonomics grouped by body regions:

  1. Head Position and Monitor Height
  2. Arm Position and Upper Chest Posture
  3. Chair Height and Leg Position.

Strategies for stretches and taking breaks, and perhaps surprisingly, sleep positions are also discussed.

1. Head Position and Monitor Height

Monitor Height: When working at a computer, your gaze should be hitting the top 1/3 of the monitor screen, with your head straight and level.

Head Position: Minimize time spent looking down, such as reading or writing on a desk surface or using a laptop. This is a HUGE issue—the root of pain and other symptoms for so many clients. Take frequent 30-second breaks to bring your head back to a neutral position (think balancing a book on your head).

Glasses: If you wear bifocals and want to see something more closely on the computer monitor, don't tip your head back to look through the reading portion of the glasses. Remember that you want your head neutral. Ask your eye care provider for “computer glasses” or get full-frame reading glasses.

The monitor should be around eye level, the ears in line with the shoulders, arms at the sides, and the elbow angles opened up from 90 degrees.
The monitor should be around eye level, the ears in line with the shoulders, arms at the sides, and the elbow angles opened up from 90 degrees. | Source

Computer Peripherals to Improve Ergonomics

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Use a monitor stand or stack of books to raise the monitor to eye level.The only way to make a laptop more ergonomic is with a docking station and other peripherals.
Use a monitor stand or stack of books to raise the monitor to eye level.
Use a monitor stand or stack of books to raise the monitor to eye level. | Source
The only way to make a laptop more ergonomic is with a docking station and other peripherals.
The only way to make a laptop more ergonomic is with a docking station and other peripherals. | Source

2. Upper Chest and Arm Position

Improve Your Posture: Pull your shoulders back. Try to line up your shoulders with your ear holes. Try to remember to do this in more and more of your daily activities. Ergonomic posture is not new; your mama told you this, right?

Arm Position: When at a computer, elbows should be down by your sides, not forward of your shoulders. Elbows should be slightly opened up from 90 degrees, with wrists lower than the elbows. Minimize the time your elbows spend at 90 degrees or less, for instance, when propping your head on your hand. Elbow flexion takes the slack out of the ulnar nerve, stressing and irritating the nerve.

Mouse: Move your mouse with shoulder movement, not wrist movement. This is a key strategy in avoiding “tennis elbow” (or mouser’s elbow?).

Knees should be level with hips for proper spinal alignment
Knees should be level with hips for proper spinal alignment | Source

3. Chair Height and Leg Position

Chair: If you sit for prolonged periods of time, it is especially important to optimize your chair position to improve your posture. Adjust the height of your chair, or put books under your feet so that your thigh is parallel to the floor. This minimizes strain on the spine. A desk chair does not need to be expensive, it just needs to be adjustable.

Legs: Your leg position should be 90/90/90, meaning 90 degree angles of your ankles, knees and hips. Your knees should be even with your hips.

A Chair Does Not Need to Be Expensive

Boss Office Products B315-BE Perfect Posture Delux Fabric Task Chair without Arms in Blue
Boss Office Products B315-BE Perfect Posture Delux Fabric Task Chair without Arms in Blue

I have a chair very similar to this. I prefer no arm rests as shown here.

 
Take a minute several times a day to stretch the upper chest muscles.
Take a minute several times a day to stretch the upper chest muscles.

Take Frequent Breaks and Stretch Often

Breaks: Take frequent 30 to 60 second micro-breaks throughout the day to move your body. This alone has made a significant impact for clients. Get up out of your chair and walk a few steps. You can still be “on the job” in your head! Next break, move your hands. Later your arms. Then your ankles. Get the picture?

Stretches: We spend most of our waking hours with our arms forward doing something. This results in tight chest muscles, which constrict the blood vessels and nerves in the upper chest, causing or contributing to an array of upper extremity symptoms. Perform chest opener stretches, such as pinching your shoulder blades together.

If you are going to sleep on your side, stack your shoulders and hips. Rest your top arm on your side or on pillows.
If you are going to sleep on your side, stack your shoulders and hips. Rest your top arm on your side or on pillows. | Source

Sleep Positions

Upper Body: Most of us claim to be side sleepers, but this is not strictly true. We tend to roll down toward the bed. When side sleeping, sleep with your shoulders and hips “stacked” (i.e. one shoulder/hip is directly on top of the other) and your top arm supported on pillows or on your side. Avoid “closing down” the upper chest, which restricts the blood flow in the upper chest. If you sleep flat on your back, great!

Arms: Again, try to keep your elbows at 90 degrees or greater. Remember this stresses the ulnar nerve. As an added bonus, if you follow this rule, you won’t have your hand under your head, so you won’t cut off circulation in your hand.

Summary

Now you have my emergency quick-start computer ergonomics strategies along with a few other tips to help you continue slaving over your desk and computer. These strategies are tried and true for decreasing and often eliminating pain in the neck, back, arms, and hands. If it feels impossible, then pick one or two tips to prioritize. I’d probably pick the ones that my gut told me were the most likely culprits. If I were really overwhelmed, I’d pick the ones that would seem to be the easiest to change first. Good luck!

Talk to Your Health Care Provider

This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Consult your doctor. Many therapists are experts in ergonomics. Consider asking for an occupational therapy or physical therapy consult.

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Questions & Answers

    © 2009 rmcrayne

    Comments

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    • rmcrayne profile imageAUTHOR

      rmcrayne 

      8 years ago from San Antonio Texas

      Thanks for reading RTalloni.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 

      8 years ago from the short journey

      Thanks muchly for the good info and good discussion.

    • rmcrayne profile imageAUTHOR

      rmcrayne 

      8 years ago from San Antonio Texas

      Thanks for reading Jeffrey. I'm confident these tips will help.

    • Jeffrey Neal profile image

      Jeffrey Neal 

      8 years ago from Tennessee

      Informative hub! As I am spending more time at a desk lately, I will be using your tips to hopefully avoid any problems in the future. Thank you.

    • rmcrayne profile imageAUTHOR

      rmcrayne 

      9 years ago from San Antonio Texas

      Thanks for your support prasetio30. I will be publishing hubs on neck, upper back and upper chest stretches and exercises in future hubs.

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 

      9 years ago from malang-indonesia

      nice information. I think this is great exercise and we should do it regularly. Nice to try.

    • rmcrayne profile imageAUTHOR

      rmcrayne 

      9 years ago from San Antonio Texas

      Christy & Robert, Thanks for the encouragement!

      Thanks for the info on Dvorak and QWERTYUIOP keyboard layouts. Any guess on learning time to transition to new keyboard/style? I went to a continuing education conference a few years back where one of the speakers was a physiatrist who invented Mouse Key Do typing system. He said it took about 20-30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, for 5 to 6 weeks to learn. I liked the principle of the system. You start out with big body movements of the trunk and arms, then over time bring it back down to where you look normal again, but are still being more fluid with your body. I find I "cure" the majority of clients, even those with [presumptive] carpal tunnel, with education on posture, and attention to upper body posture. If you get that right, then everything else falls into place. But that's another long hub.

      Your posture runaround of constantly fidgeting/moving is key. Probably the simplest strategy, at least in principle, that any of us can do. Of necessity, you have learned to listen to your body. Most people just "turn up the radio" so they don't hear the rattles in the old car.

      Glad you found some validation in my hub. Don't you love it when that happens? It footstomps that listening more to what our body tells us yields big payoffs.

      Thanks for your comments.

      Rose Mary

    • profile image

      Christy8914 

      9 years ago

      Again--Very good information, said in a way, that I understand.

    • robertsloan2 profile image

      robertsloan2 

      9 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      This is interesting. I'll add one thing to the list.

      Choose a time when you don't have an upcoming major typing activity and start learning the Dvorak Keyboard Layout. It's more ergonomic. I wound up heading off symptoms of what seemed like Carpal Tunnel when I switched in 2000 from the Qwerty layout of a standard keyboard to the Dvorak layout.

      I was a touch typist with 81 words a minute speed because I was a typesetter who gained that speed and hideous accuracy doing 12-18 hour days Monday through Friday typing and coding. The QWERTYUIOP keyboard layout was literally designed to slow typists down because it was created at a time when mechanical typewriters jammed at about 70 words a minute and some typists were getting 100 to 150 words a minute.

      Dvorak reorganized the keys till they required the least motion to reach the most often used keys. All the vowels are on the left hand home row. Yep. That easy. It means moving your hands around less, stretching less, less wrist motion.

      I have had to come up with my own posture runarounds, which mostly involve constantly fidgeting and changing posture with mini-stretches since I'm not shaped like a symmetrical person. If I force myself into "proper" posture I will throw my back and wreck my neck and hip with ludicrous speed, if I try to do that in a hard chair it'll happen within a minute and be harder on me than standing up. So I'm dealing with skeletal problems there and have had to invent unique runarounds and postures.

      That part of your article was familiar. The sleep posture one rang a bell. I usually put a pillow under my arm when I'm laying on my side, prop it up so that I stay on my side and it doesn't take any body effort to stay there rather than flop over on my stomach. I found myself stretching out my arms along my body or over my head more often than not because that'd relieve some pain. Seeing that validated in your article is fascinating.

      I think I'm on the right track with my home adaptations. I'm the one that lives with the consequences of these motions, good days and bad days, so I get immediate feedback if something doesn't work or helps.

      Please do keep writing hubs on these strategies. A lot of people don't know what they can do to deal with desk work. If they're abled, moving around and getting up often, staying in good posture and finding physical things to do so that it's not uninterrupted is the best thing they can do to avoid the long term problems.

      I have also noticed that head banging to music is good. It's activity. It's motion. People who wear headphones and head-bang or move around to the music aren't sitting as perfectly still and aren't as rigid. So maybe that'd help too, listening to the music and moving with it.

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