Is working on your computer from home starting to cause neck and/or back pain?
Pain and tension can make it hard to focus and be productive, and a sub-standard work environment can lead to physical damage to your body in the form of repetitive motion strain injuries (such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis), neck and low back strain and even disc injury(1)(2).
Thankfully fixes are simple, and injuries can be reduced or avoided by following quick and easy to implement guidelines that don’t require buying expensive equipment. Whether you are just setting up a temporary home workstation for the next several weeks, or would like guidance for a more permanent solution, this post has you covered.
Because more of us are working from home by necessity, I’ve had patients tell me that they are having a hard time working comfortably without experiencing neck, back, arm, and/or wrist pain. I shot the following two videos to show how to make sure your at-home setup is optimized to be more comfortable and productive. Below the videos I've outlined the basic steps in written form and included sections on chairs and sit-stand desks and a few links to some of the items mentioned. If you need additional assistance after reading this post and watching the videos, schedule a virtual consultation and I’ll be happy to help.
In this first video I tried to include things that you already have on hand at home, and while it may not look pretty, it should help you be more comfortable for a longer period of time.
This second video shows how to use an inexpensive bookstand to raise your laptop in seconds to get it at a comfortable height. Portable bookstands are great because they’re small enough to take your workstation with you if you need to move it at a moment’s notice, making them handy for future business trips or coffeeshop sessions. I’ve included links to bookstands and other equipment to consider at the bottom of this post.
Basic Home Setup
Many people working at home are modifying their dining room/kitchen table or a desk with the same height and using a laptop. Laptops are a great design for convenience and portability, but not so great if you need to work longer than a 15-minute session as the tendency will be to hunch over to see the screen and type at the same time. This will lead to many problems such as neck, low back, arm and wrist injuries as I described above.
First- Fix your seat. When evaluating a sitting workstation, the first thing I like to address is the chair/sitting surface and adjust it to reduce the amount of stress being absorbed by the lumbar spine (aka your low back). In the video example I’m looking at a standard dining room chair. Almost all dining room chairs are designed more for looks not long-term seating.
To make the chair more comfortable, raise your hips so they are higher than your knees when you sit, with your feet supported. This helps support your low back and you may find that you can sit comfortably in this position without needing to use the back of the chair for support.
The quickest way to do this is to use a firm wedge-shaped cushion. Most patients in my office purchase one of these cushions at the beginning of care and use it in their car. If you don’t have a wedge cushion, you can improvise by using a firm pillow, folding towels and raising your “sit bones” up, or sitting toward the front of the seat. I address ergonomic chairs in a paragraph below and recommend making an investment in one if you have a home office. It doesn’t need to break the bank and links to a few options to consider are also included at the bottom of this post.
Keyboard and mouse position-keep arms down at your sides with neutral wrists. Once you have your chair set up, look at your arm/wrist position and aim for neutral wrists without having to reach very far. If your elbows were to be glued down at your sides (by your ribs) with your elbows bent at 90 degrees, your keyboard, mouse, etc. should be comfortably accessible within that range without your upper arms really losing contact with your rib-cage. In the video, I needed to raise my seat up with a stack of books to get to where my wrists were in a neutral position.
Position monitor at the right height and use an external keyboard/mouse with laptops. To make a laptop functional at any height, I strongly recommend using an external keyboard/mouse and raising the laptop so the top of the monitor is at a level where you can see the screen with a comfortable, neutral head/neck position (not looking up or down). You can use a box, stack of books or a laptop/book stand to get to the top of your computer screen at the right height.
Using these suggestions is the quickest way to get you up and running to be more productive for longer periods of time while working on your computer at home.
Many times the best ergonomic chairs don't have a back. As long as your seat is comfortably angled so your hips are higher than your knees and your feet either touch the ground or are supported, your posture should naturally "pop up" and your lumbar spine in your low back will feel comfortable and supported without needing to be in contact with the back of the chair. My home office and work chairs do not have a back and I find them more supportive and comfortable than those that do. Some of the best options will introduce a bit of movement for active sitting to engage your core. Just make sure it's sturdy enough that you don't feel like you're going to fall off. (Scroll down for some links)
Standing desks are becoming increasingly popular and can be very healthy for your spine by helping to reduce injury and improving productivity(3)(4). Options range in price from $0 (if you have a counter that is high enough to modify) to several hundreds for fancy motorized height-adjustable desks. Between these two extremes, there exist options such as adjustable desk toppers and monitor arms (with and without a keyboard attachment). I’ve posted a video on my Facebook page reviewing two well-made and reasonably priced options, an adjustable desk topper and a motorized sit-stand desk I purchased from FlexiSpot to use in my office. Several of these options are in the links below. When setting up a standing computer workstation, the same monitor height and keyboard placement rules apply.
Final Note-Make sure to keep active!
Even though prolonged sitting is “bad” for your spine, standing long periods is not the answer, either. To get the most from a standing workstation, change the position from sitting to standing and take a break to energize your body and mind every 30-45 minutes during your workday. With either scenario you want to make sure to remain active. Set an alarm/notification on your phone, drink lots of water, get up and take a walk or a quick 10-15 minute workout to get your brain back online.
I hope this information is helpful-please feel free to share with others who might also find it useful. I also encourage you to follow us on social media via Facebook or Instagram to get notified of new offers, information and tips as I post them.
Links: (BTW-none of these are affiliate links, nor are they direct recommendations, just some examples I was able to find on Amazon today to get you pointed in the right direction)
saddle stool with adjustable footrest
monitor arm with keyboard tray
1. Goggins, R. (2008) Cost Benefit measurement of Ergonomic Programs. Journal of Safety Research, 39: 339-344.
2. United States Department of Labor-Occupational Safety and Health Administration. osha.gov. np. 22 March 2020 https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/ergonomics/
3. Karakolis, T., Barrett, J., & Callaghan, J. P. (2016). A comparison of trunk biomechanics, musculoskeletal discomfort and productivity during simulated sit-stand office work. Ergonomics, 59(10), 1275-1287.
4. Garrett, G., Benden, M., Mehta, R., Pickens, A, Peres, S. C., & Zhao, H. (2016). Call center productivity over 6 months following a standing desk intervention. IIE Transactions on Occupational Ergonomics and Human Factors, 4(2-3), 188-195.
Dr. Jane Baxley