Setting up your work-from-home desk to avoid back pain

Millions of us are now working from home and as we adjust to accommodate stay-at-home orders, most of us should also be adjusting our at-home offices to prevent aches and pains, which can develop into more severe damage to our spine. Like most of you, I have become accustomed to emailing from the kitchen counter or spending time hunched over with a laptop on my lap. Most of us may feel fine for the first couple of weeks or longer, but working in a home office daily over the course of weeks or months is very different than doing so intermittently. Unless you have the right desk setup, you may find that back or neck pain may begin to kick in.

Your at-home set up needs to work for you, but it should also be designed in a way that will preserve continuous spine health, despite spending long hours in front of a computer. Here’s are some tips that may help you avoid neck or back pain:

1. Are you using the 90-degree angle rule?
Always sit with your spine straight and your knees and elbows bent at 90-degree angles. There may be a need to have a footrest to ensure the angle is kept. If a footrest is not an option, you will need the right chair/desk combination that allows you to fit this 90-degree configuration. Find a chair that is customizable and adjustable so you can continue to make small adjustments, as needed.

2. If you own a laptop, consider purchasing an external monitor
Yes, laptops and notebooks are portable and convenient, but they can be difficult to use on an ongoing basis because the monitor and keyboard are so close together. This means, if your arms are at a comfortable place for typing, then your head, neck, and eyes are going to be aimed down. The answer is an external keyboard. This will allow you to place your laptop’s monitor at the right height, as well as your typing hands, keeping your spine properly aligned.
3. Keep your eyes level with your monitor

Your monitor should be at a height that you can look at with your neck straight, not bent either down or up. A bent neck is one of the fastest ways to begin to feel the negative effects of poor alignment. For most of us, monitors need to be elevated. Adjust the monitor height so that the top of the screen is at—or slightly below—eye level so your eyes look slightly downward when viewing the middle of the screen. Also, position the monitor at least 20 inches (51 cm) from your eyes—about an arm’s length distance. An adjustable-height monitor stand or a stack of books can easily help you achieve ergonomic alignment.

4. Take breaks, switch it up, and add variety
Most of you have probably seen the standing desks that many people use today. Many of my low-back and sciatica patients have found them helpful in relieving pain. For others, it is a good option to encourage not sitting for too long.

Regardless of your work set up, you should take breaks and move around every half hour or so. Set a timer to remind yourself to take a break from sitting. The occasional working while standing at a high desk is beneficial, just make sure you keep the ergonomic integrity of your “standing break” desk too. Switching to sitting on a ball or ball chair for some time of the day is also beneficial.

I’ve come to appreciate the diversity in all of my patients when it comes to how they nurture their back health. You are the only one who can determine what is going to feel best in setting up your worksite after you apply these ergonomic principles. Each small change or modification can bring vast improvements (or weaknesses, if not done correctly) in the way you feel. Paying close attention to how your changes affect you, is very important. Now that you are equipped with the knowledge and recognize the importance of keeping your at-home work environment optimized – your spine will thank you.

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Eamonn Mahoney, MD, is an orthopedic spine surgeon at Northern Arizona Orthopaedics. He provides telehealth and in-clinic exams for those individuals who are in pain from or concerned with, neck and back conditions. He practices in Flagstaff and the White Mountains. To request an appointment with Dr. Mahoney or any of the Northern Arizona Orthopaedics specialists visit them at www.northazortho.com or call 928-226-2900.