After 5 hours of work, you're proud of what you've accomplished. But then the fluorescent lights begin to give you a headache and your back hurts from sitting at your desk for so long. So why does office work give people headaches?
There are several reasons why office work can be bad for your health—and it's not just because of those fluorescent lights! Many people who work at a seated desk may find themselves experiencing physical discomfort, and this all has to do with the way we sit when doing our jobs.
Ágnes Hangay, FirstMed's physical therapist coordinator, has helped hundreds of people who suffer from bad posture at their desks. She’s seen how office work can lead to a whole host of problems, such as headaches or back pain. In this interview, she shares what she sees in her practice, how a physical therapist can help avoid these issues, and more.
“As a physical therapist, I often treat patients with office jobs. If you work in an office or spend most of the day in front of your computer, you need to pay extra attention to your body position.”
Many people have trouble maintaining good posture while sitting at a computer. They may find themselves slouching or looking down at the screen, which can lead to poor body mechanics over time and result in serious health problems later on.
When you slouch over your desk or computer, your shoulders are hunched forward, which makes you extend your neck and tilt your head forward. This so-called forward head posture puts pressure on the spine which causes pain in the neck and upper back. The back muscles are also tensed when you have incorrect posture, which can contribute to back aches.
If you spend most of your workday sitting in front of a computer, you may feel the aches and pains associated with bad posture creeping in. Avoid these problems by making these simple changes in your work routine so you can keep everything feeling good during the day.
1. Reduce pain and improve posture through ergonomic furniture
Ergonomic chairs support the back and keep it in a natural position; you can adjust their height and tilt to find the most comfortable setting for your body. If your chair doesn’t fit your body shape, use pillows or cushions to improve comfort and give your spine more support when sitting in front of the computer all day long.
Place your computer so that the top of the screen is at or below eye level, and roughly 70 centimeters (about arm’s length) away from you. You should be able to see both sides of the screen without moving your head too much.
If you work from home, set up a little office corner with ergonomic furniture. If you use a laptop, elevate the screen either by using an extra monitor or putting it on top of something solid like a book or a stand (this will help reduce strain on your neck and back muscles when reading for long periods).
Follow these guidelines to improve your posture:
- Sit up straight. Straighten your back, and keep your head in line with it.
- Keep your feet flat on the floor and your back supported by the chair. Your knees should be at 90 degrees, with your arms close to your body.
- Keep your shoulders relaxed and not hunched and your head in line with the rest of your body, as if you were standing up straight.
- Place your arms on the desk and keep them at a 90-degree angle from your body.
Prevent back pain or headaches by practicing good habits throughout the day. You can do these with little effort: stand up and take frequent short breaks from sitting; stretch at least once every 60 minutes.
Get up from your desk at least every second hour and do something different for a few minutes. Even just standing up can help increase circulation in the lower limbs and improve blood flow to the brain while reducing pressure on nerves along your spine. This relieves stress on muscles and joints. Take a few minutes at work to stretch and move around.
- Stretch your arms, back and legs. Move around: take a break, walk around the office, or go outside for some fresh air. If you sit all day long at work, try to get up at least once an hour. This will relax your muscles and stretch them out.
- Whenever possible, climb the stairs instead of taking the elevator.
- Take a walk outside during your lunch break—even if it's only for ten minutes. You'll feel refreshed when you return to work!
These tips will help you avoid stiffness when sitting at your desk.
Ágnes Hangay recommends doing regular exercises at least three times a week, for at least 30 minutes each. Good options for strengthening core muscles include swimming, walking or nordic walking, working out at the gym, pilates, yoga, dancing, or other sports that focus on core strength. This will help support better posture throughout the day.
Incorrect posture can lead to chronic pain in your muscles and joints. The most common complaints include frequent headaches, muscle stiffness, and pain radiating to the shoulder and upper arms. If these problems persist, see a medical professional.
If you have pain or stiffness in your neck and upper back, tell your primary care physician about it. You might get some suggestions about specialists who can help you. You could see a neurologist if you have symptoms of nerve disorders, or an orthopedist if there is an abnormality detected on x-rays or MRI scans. A rheumatologist can examine whether your pain is caused by inflammation. Your doctor can give you a referral for physical therapy if he/she feels that this will help your condition.
How can physical therapy prevent and treat problems such as headaches, musculoskeletal pains and low back pain caused by bad posture?
One of the best ways to prevent headaches, musculoskeletal pains and low back pain is to get physical therapy. Your doctor may prescribe you a full-body physical therapy program that includes exercises for the neck and shoulders, back muscles, hips, knees and ankles.
Physical therapy can help you relieve muscle stiffness and increase core stability. A physical therapist can teach you exercises that'll improve your balance, help you stand up straight, and decrease pain in the lower back, neck and shoulders. You can practice these techniques at home after a each session with your physical therapist.
Posture reeducation is a useful way to get good posture habits, as well as deal with pain caused by poor posture. Physical therapists also use manual therapy: they put pressure on muscles and joints with their hands to decrease back pain caused by muscle spasms, muscle tension, and joint dysfunction.
Physical therapy is beneficial in relieving pain, increasing muscle flexibility and strength, improving core stability (important for supporting the spine), and teaching you how to use your body properly.
FirstMed's physical therapist, Ágnes Hangay, highlights that the best way to avoid back pain is to keep a correct posture. If you spend all day sitting in front of the computer, it is especially important to sit up straight. This will help you avoid headaches and other painful problems that can arise from wrong posture.
To keep your muscles limber, get up and move around. Try stretching even if it's only for a few minutes at first. After work, do some sort of physical activity—even something as simple as walking home from the subway can help counteract muscle stiffness caused by prolonged sitting!
If you're experiencing pain at work despite all your efforts to avoid it, or just want to learn how to correct your body posture while working long hours, ask your doctor about physical therapy as an option. Learn more about FirstMed’s physical therapy practice as a preventive measure or potential solution to your pain problems.