Workplace May 2016

Combating work-related pain

If you, like many, spend the majority of your professional life sitting in front of a computer, you will most probably have suffered some degree of workstation-related pain. The good news is there are many ergonomic strategies available to help combat the hazards of a sedentary lifestyle. Here are some tips to make things better.


The primary mission of ergonomics is to match a person’s working environment to his or her demands. The setup of your desk space directly affects the way you sit and move throughout the day. General guidelines include:

  • Position the top of the monitor at eye height and the monitor at arms’ length
  • Place the keyboard—with the keyboard pegs down—in such a way that your elbows are adjacent to your body
  • Place the mouse adjacent to the keyboard
  • Set the height of the chair so that your hips are slightly higher than your knees.

Using a laptop makes good posture difficult to achieve. For those who use laptops regularly, consider the use of a laptop stand with an external keyboard and mouse.


The majority of people tend to sit with rounded backs with their weight centred on the area between the ischial tuberosities (sit bones) and the coccyx (the tailbone). Sitting on this area puts the lower back in a rounded position (fig. C, which may put pressure on certain structures of the spine, including the intervertebral discs.

The other common sitting posture is often an overcorrection—due to pain—of a rounded posture. People try to “sit up straight” (fig. A, arching their back and, in the process, causing excessive tension in the muscles of the back and compression in the facet joints of the spine.

Ideally, when we sit, we want to sit in as neutral a position as possible (fig. B, maintaining the natural S-shaped curve of the spine. We should be able to do this without overly contracting the spinal muscles. Sitting on the correct area of the pelvis will help facilitate this posture.

A useful technique is the sit-bone sit.

As you sit down, reach around and pull back and up on the sit bones on one side of your pelvis at a time. You should then find that you are sitting on the front aspect of your sit bones with your weight evenly distributed throughout your thighs. This will allow you to relax into the back of your chair without rounding the lower back, and sit in neutral alignment without tensing the back muscles.



Even sitting in an ideal posture will cause excessive loading if sustained for a long time. Thus, it is important to periodically change your sitting posture, even if this is to a less ergonomically sound one.

More important, ensure that you are getting up and away from your desk as often as possible. Even in sedentary occupations, there are always opportunities to do this; you simply have to look for them.

To help break up the working day, it is also possible to do movement snacks—short and spontaneous training sessions—at your desk. These include the following.

Sitting puts the hips and lower back in a flexed position. It therefore makes sense to periodically move the back in the opposite direction.

Stand up, placing your hands on either side of your pelvis. Using this as a fulcrum, arch backwards.

Sitting, combined with typical workplace stress, often results in the development of apical breathing, the pattern with most movement in the upper chest. This causes stiffening of the upper back, overuse of the neck and shoulder muscles, and sub-optimal respiratory function.

Diaphragmatic breathing exercises can help combat these changes, and aid in relaxation and stress management.

In a sitting position, place your hands over the lower part of the rib cage. Inhale through the nose and feel the area under your hands expand as the air flows deep into the bottom of your lungs. Exhale fully through pursed lips, gently pulling your naval towards your spine.

By stretching the upper neck muscles, extending the lower part of the neck and activating the deep neck flexor muscles, this drill effectively reverses the stress placed on the neck by sitting with a forward head posture.

Bring your head back over your shoulders while lengthening your spine.

Change your perspective

If you are a sufferer of chronic pain, you have no doubt considered that your workplace habits could be the cause. It is important to understand that pain itself is merely a neurological output, and is modulated by many factors that are not limited to stress on the tissues of the body.

Excessively negative thoughts and feelings towards a potential cause of your pain are likely to make the pain worse. Attaching blame for the pain to something or someone increases the likelihood of it becoming chronic.

Instead of blaming your work environment, apply the recommendations above to optimise the way you function in the office, and then focus on the positives of your job.

What do you find rewarding and how are you helping others? Does it give you the opportunity to network and meet interesting people?

If you struggle to find anything positive about the work you do, try to focus on its financial benefits. As well as providing for you and your family, your job gives you financial freedom to do other things. Focusing on the positive aspects of your occupation will better equip you to manage and control your pain.