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Tips For Staying Healthy With A Desk Job
Posted by Dr. Ben Kim
Let’s begin our look at how to stay healthy while spending hours at a desk by addressing your foundation. Unless you have a health condition that makes it difficult to sit for a long period of time, your foundation while working at a desk is likely your pelvis, which serves as a base for your spinal column, which in turn provides protective housing for your nervous system, which serves as the primary highway of information traffic that allows you to do and feel all that you do.
If your pelvis is consistently faced with asymmetrical or heavy downward pressure, it can begin to experience inflammation in one or more of the joint surfaces, ligaments and muscles that comprise it. Put another way, if you sit in an awkward position for long enough, you will inevitably experience a pelvic injury.
The most obvious cause of pelvic inflammation is sitting on an uneven surface. This happens most frequently when a person sits with a wallet or some other object in one back pocket. As some health practitioners know, a chief cause of chronic pelvic or lower back pain in truck drivers is sitting for hours at a time with a thick wallet in one back pocket.
Your pelvis is designed to evenly distribute its workload to both of your bum cheeks. The sitting bone that you can feel at the bottom of each bum cheek while you are seated is called your ischial tuberosity. And if one ischial tuberosity has to consistently take on its own workload plus part of the workload that its partner is responsible for, it's only a matter of time before inflammation occurs and the natural biomechanical design and function of your pelvis goes awry.
Next Up: Your Lower Back
Just above your pelvis sits your lower back, also called your lumbar spinal region. This is where most painful disc protrusions and other chronic lower back problems tend to occur.
The spinal bones that house and protect your spinal cord are separated at each level by round discs of cartilage that are designed to act as shock absorbers. If these discs experience too much stress – over time or even as a one-time major injury – they can begin to “slip” backward into your spinal canal, where they can put pressure on your spinal cord or spinal nerves. Once in contact with your spinal cord or spinal nerves, a slipped disc almost always translates to serious discomfort.
As you have probably guessed, sitting for extended periods of time can, over the long term, put enough pressure on your lumbar discs to cause chronic lower back pain. Actually, sitting for a living can put damaging pressure on a number of structures in your lower back; a slipped disc is the most common and easily visualized lower back problem that can occur – this is why we are using it as our prime example in this section.
Clearly, it may not be practical for you to find an alternative to sitting while you are working in front of your computer or doing other desk work. Over the years, some of the people that I have treated for severe, chronic lower back conditions have had to alter their work stations to enable them to stand while they worked, but you and most others without an existing lower back problem likely do not have to resort to this measure.
Here are some tips that you can follow to minimize any negative impact that sitting for long periods of time may have on your lower back:
At least once every 20-30 minutes, stand up and stretch your entire body lengthwise, pushing your feet into the ground and reaching up toward the ceiling with your arms. Your spinal discs and bones face three times less pressure when you are standing compared to when you are seated. Stretching while standing further relieves your lower back of downward pressure. If your working environment permits, go ahead and do this stretch while lying on the ground. And don't hesitate to groan with pleasure as you do this!
If possible, work with the back of your chair slightly reclined. Reclining back so that your trunk and thighs form about a 135 degree angle puts less stress on your spine than sitting upright at 90 degrees or leaning forward.
Spend a few minutes each evening doing basic sit-ups or a similar exercise that strengthens your abdominal muscles. Strong abdominal muscles can help support the weight of your trunk, thereby taking pressure off of your lower back.
Spend another few minutes each evening stretching your hamstrings, the muscles that line the back of your thighs. When tight, your hamstrings can pull down on your pelvis, which can create an unstable lower back region that is prone to suffering sprains and strains.
Protect Your Upper Back and Shoulders
Two of the most common problems that you may encounter over a long career that involves sitting at a desk and using a computer are upper back tightness and shoulder pain. In the absence of an overt injury or a degenerative process like arthritis, both are often related to allowing your shoulders and chest to slouch forward while you go about your daily activities.
When you slouch forward, your “shawl” muscles – those that line the top of your upper back – pull on the spinal bones that you can feel at the back of your neck where it meets your upper back. If you've ever spent several hours doing desk work without taking a break, you've probably experienced a sharp, achy sensation in this region. If you continue to put unnecessary stress on your upper back in this fashion, over time, the natural curve of the spinal bones in this region can change in a way that can increase your risk of suffering from degenerative spinal arthritis.
Slouching forward decreases a critical space that is located at the front of each of your shoulders, just under your collar bones. This space is called your subacromial space, and needs to be maintained in order to allow thick bundles of nerves and blood vessels to travel from your neck down to your arms and hands. When chronic slouching decreases your subacromial space, your nerves and blood vessels can become encroached. Depending on which structures are compressed, you may experience any number of uncomfortable symptoms, the most common of which are:
Poor blood circulation in your arms and hands, predisposing you to chronically cold hands
Tingling and pain in your wrists and elbows, often associated with carpal tunnel syndrome and elbow tendonitis, respectively
Pain when you try to elevate and externally rotate your shoulders – when severe, this may prevent you from raising your arms above the level of your shoulders
An important part of the plan to prevent chronic shoulder and upper back problems is just to be aware that slouching forward on a regular basis can be troublesome.
Strive to make a habit of keeping your shoulders back as though you are about to try to squeeze a pencil with your shoulder blades.
If need be, post a highly visible sticky note somewhere around your desk to remind you to do this.
Another measure that you can take to prevent shoulder and upper back problems is to spend a few minutes each day strengthening the muscles that line your upper back and the rear portions of your shoulders. If you have elastic tubing or make regular visits to a gym, you can do rowing exercises where you expand your chest forward while inhaling deeply as you pull back with your arms and squeeze your shoulder blades together. You can accomplish the same thing by keeping your legs pressed against one another and almost fully straightening them on the ground while sitting straight up, wrapping a bed sheet or long towel around the soles of your feet, and pulling on them with your hands to simulate a backward row. Just holding this position for 10 seconds at a time while you squeeze your shoulder blades together is an effective way to train your shoulders and upper back to maintain good posture.
Another way to train your shoulders and upper back to stay back and avoid slouching is to do arm circles for a minute or two each day. Arm circles involve raising your arms straight out from your sides until they are parallel with the floor, then turning them in slow circles while keeping your shoulder blades squeezed toward one another. You can do ten circles going forward, then ten circles going backward. The keys are to go slow, keep your circles small (less than 12 inches in diameter), and keep your shoulder blades contracted toward one another throughout the exercise.
Yet another step you can take to prevent shoulder and upper back problems is to spend a few minutes each day lying on your back, with one or a few pillows under your mid back so that your head and your bum fall off the upper and lower edges of the pillow(s). In this position, allow your arms to fall back comfortably onto the surface that you are lying on so that you feel a good stretch throughout your chest muscles. The pillows serve to push your spine forward, which helps to offset the tendency for your spine to curve backward from sitting at a desk for most of the day. You can accomplish the same stretch by lying back on a flexible exercise ball for a couple of minutes each day.
Take Care of Your Hands and Wrists
Even if you minimize your chances of experiencing hand and wrist problems that stem from slouching forward and decreasing your subacromial spaces, you may still develop hand and wrist pain if you don't pay proper attention to how you use your keyboard.
Take a look at the keyboard that sits in front of you. Is it on an angle that is causing your wrists to be an inch or two lower than the rest of your hands? If your hands are extended like this on a regular basis, you are at risk of applying unnecessary pressure to a large nerve – called your median nerve – that travels through your wrists to supply your hands. Pressure on your median nerve and ensuing inflammation is often called carpal tunnel syndrome.
Here are two simple measures that you can take to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome:
Don't lower the two clips under your keyboard on the side that is closer to your monitor. Lowering these clips will further extend your wrists as you type.
If you aren't already doing so, use a keyboard wrist pad, one that can sit in front of your keyboard so that your wrists and hands are about level. With the way that your wrist and finger bones are naturally aligned, it's normal to have your hands be slightly higher than your wrists. The key is to ensure that you don't feel any strain on the undersides of your wrists. If you would rather not purchase a wrist pad, you can place a folded hand towel in front of your keyboard to elevate your wrists to an appropriate height. If you use a laptop, use however many towels you need to feel like your hands, wrists, and elbows are not under any strain. Some laptops like the MacBook Pro are designed to allow for proper alignment of your wrists and hands without a need for a wrist pad or towel to elevate your wrists.
Protect Your Neck
Unnecessary strain in your neck region may eventually cause you to experience tension headaches. If you use your thumbs to feel the base of the back of your head where it meets up with the top of your neck, you will find a relatively deep groove on each side. Out of these grooves emerge two large nerves, called your suboccipital nerves. Your suboccipital nerves travel up the back of your head, wrap around your ears, and supply the structures in and around your temples and eyes. Tense neck muscles can put pressure on your suboccipital muscles, which can create pain anywhere along the path of these nerves.
Tense neck muscles can also alter the way that your jaw joints move. Your jaw joints – also called your temporo-mandibular joints are two of the most delicate joints in your entire body, and once damaged, may cause jaw pain and chewing problems for the rest of your life.
Taking good care of your neck is quite simple to do. First, you should arrange your desk, computer, and phone so that your neck does not have to maintain a stressful position for more than a few seconds at a time. Here are four key suggestions to help you do this:
Invest in a headset that allows you to talk without bending your neck. If you use your phone or a voice system through your computer on a regular basis, use of a headset is absolutely essential to the well being of your neck. I like and use a Plantronics USB Headset when on Skype, and a generic earphone with microphone system when using a regular phone.
If you have to type on your keyboard while looking at a sheet of paper, consider investing in a document holder that can be positioned right next to your monitor to ensure that your neck does not have to rotate more than a few degrees while your head moves back and forth between the paper and your monitor.
Position your computer monitor so that you do not have to strain your neck forward while you work.
If you have to spend extended periods of time reading printed work, invest in a book holder that you can use to prop the printed work up on your desk. This is especially important for students who spend several hours reading textbooks at their desks each day or week. When I was in university, I used something similar to the INP-101-O Book Stand.
The second way to keep your neck region healthy is to spend a minute or two each day stretching it for 5-10 seconds in each the following directions:
Forward, where you bring your chin down toward your chest until you feel a good stretch in the muscles that line the back of your neck.
Backward, where you look up to the sky until you cannot extend your head any further, or until you feel a comfortable stretch in the muscles that line the front of your neck.
To the left, where you bring your left ear down toward your left shoulder until you feel a good stretch in the muscles that line the right side of your neck. Your ear should go down; your shoulder should not come up.
The same stretch as number 3, except to the right.
To the left, where you rotate your head until you are looking to your left with both eyes while your shoulders remain facing forward.
The same stretch as number 5, except to the right.
Please keep in mind that with each of these stretches, you should maintain steady, even breathing throughout each stretch. Never stretch to a point where you feel pain. If you feel pain, decrease the intensity or hold time of your stretch.
To view a pictorial of these stretches, have a look here:
The third way to protect your neck from injury is to maintain healthy tone and strength in all of the muscle groups that surround your neck. You can easily accomplish this by using one or both of your hands to resist each of the six stretches that are outlined above for 5-10 seconds.
For example, to strengthen the muscles that line the front of your neck, place the palms of your hands against your forehead and attempt to bring your chin down to your chest. Resist forward flexion of your neck in this fashion for 5-10 seconds, then move on to resist your head from looking up toward the ceiling to strengthen the muscles that line the back of your neck.
If you feel pain during any of these strengthening exercises, decrease the intensity and/or duration with which you contract your neck muscles.
Protect Your Eyesight
Hundreds of millions of people from all over the globe spend many hours each day working in front of a computer. It's estimated that over 50 percent of these people experience some form of eye discomfort that is directly related to their computer work. Some of the most common forms of computer-related eye strain are:
• Blurred vision
• Eye fatigue
• Dry eyes
• Burning eyes
• Hypersensitivity to light
To optimally protect your eyesight, you can:
Take a break from looking at your monitor every 20-30 minutes. If you have easy access to the outdoors or a window, spend a minute or two looking far into the distance. The goal is to look at distant objects without staring. Doing this helps the six muscles that control each of your eyes to relax and receive a rich flow of blood. If you can't see the outdoors from your workplace or easily move away from your work station, a good alternative is to look at things that are far away from your desk like the water cooler at the other end of the room.
Place your monitor and adjust window coverings in ways that minimize glare from outdoor and indoor light. Glare from sunlight or indoor lighting is a significant source of eye strain.
As your circumstances permit, choose a flat screen monitor with the largest possible screen. A flat screen monitor helps reduce glare from outdoor and indoor light, while a large screen gives your eyes more room to move, which decreases the amount of time that your eyes stare at a small region on your monitor.
Position your monitor so that your neck is comfortable and your eyes can comfortably see the entire screen. For most people, optimal monitor placement is approximately 24 inches away from the eyes with the top of the screen at eye level.
Use the largest font size that is manageable with the work that you do. The bigger the font, the less your eyes need to strain to see them.
If you wear eyeglasses, try using lenses that have an anti-glare coating on them.
If you find yourself staring at your monitor for any reason, take a moment to blink a few times. Blinking coats the surface of your eyes with tears, keeping them moist and protected against dust.
If your work involves duties that don’t involve looking at your computer, strive to schedule your day in a way that allows you to alternate between computer and non-computer work.
That concludes part one of this series on how to stay healthy with a desk job. In part two, we'll look at several nutritional considerations that can help protect your eyes, muscles, nervous system, and all other tissues mentioned in this article as you go about your daily tasks.
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