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Prevent your workplace from becoming a pain in the neck

For many of us, we sit in a chair for eight hours a day, five days a week. We stare at a computer screen all day, and the most movement we do is in our wrists and fingers as we type. Yet millions of Americans every year suffer from neck and back pain in a workplace setting.

Think about that for a second. Picture your workspace; you might even be sitting at it right now as you read this column. How are your office supplies arranged on your desk? Do you have reach far to grab something you use multiple times a day, such as a pen or stapler? Are your supplies concentrated in one area of your desk or do you constantly have to move side to side?

What does your computer look like? Is the screen at eye level or are you having to crane your neck downward to see it? 

Now most importantly, how are you sitting? After all, this is what you’re doing most of the day. Are you sitting straight against your seatback at a perfect 90-degree angle with your feet planted firmly on the ground or are you slouching to the side or hunching over your desk? If you’re sitting up straight, do you have some type of lumbar support wedged in the bucket part of your seat?

Answering yes to some of these questions indicate you may be at risk for neck or back pain. Of course, neck and back pain aren’t limited to a typical office setting. Pain can occur from a long commute or lifting heavy objects. If you’re doing something repetitive for an extended period of time, it’s important to be aware of common warning signs.


Radiating pain
The most common neck strain occurs in the middle of the neck. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories such as Advil or Aleve can help reduce the pain. However, if you feel a numbing or tingling pain in your shoulders or arms, you could have a pinched nerve and should have it checked out by your primary care physician if symptoms persist for more than 48 hours. If you begin to feel weak or are experiencing a change in bladder control, you should seek emergency care.


Take frequent breaks
Sitting for eight hours certainly is no marathon, but it can place excessive amount of stress on your back. It’s important to take time to stretch your muscles. I recommend taking a 10-minute walking break every two hours. This also can apply to workers who spend their day lifting and moving heavy objects. Use equipment such as dollies or rolling tables to reduce the amount of stress on your back.


Ergonomic assessment
If you are attending physical therapy for any neck or back problems, ask your physical therapist to help you conduct an ergonomic assessment of your workspace. You can also do this yourself; it’s actually pretty simple. This has been very helpful with my job where I’m standing for hours on end looking down at an operating table. One thing I’ve done is use special magnification tools that allow me to see an area without having to bend my neck or back so far. If it can work for me, it can work for you. Here are some things you should look for in your workplace:
·       Height of desk and computer—Your computer should be at eye level to avoid craning your neck. Raise or lower your computer as needed until you reach the perfect height.
·       Phone—Ideally, a headset is the perfect solution to avoid craning your neck when answering calls. If you don’t have access to one, you can attach a neck rest to the back of the phone. This will at least limit the amount of stress you’re placing on your neck with each call.
·       Chair—Although most bucket chairs are designed to deliver comfort to your glutes and back, not all of them are built for lumbar support, which covers the lower part of your back. You can find inexpensive lumbar seat attachments at an office supply store. It’s also important to adjust your seat as needed based on your height until you find the perfect position.
·       Filing system—Rearrange your filing cabinet so the most important files are on top. This will help avoid straining when repeatedly reaching for files you use several times a day.


John Klekamp, M.D., is a board-certified orthopaedic surgeon with Vanderbilt Bone and Joint and serves as Chief of Surgery at Williamson Medical Center in Franklin.


Posted on: 7/10/2013


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