Here’s How to Set Up an Ergonomic Home Office to Avoid Aches & Pains

Avoid discomfort with the proper workstation
Woman suffering back pain from office setup

If you spend several hours each day working at a desk, you’ve probably experienced the ache and pain that comes with poor posture. We’re talking wrist pain, neck and back issues, hip soreness and even an increase in headaches all due to improper setup. 

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Add in the new challenge of working from home during a pandemic and you might be wondering how to set up your new workspace to be productive and avoid pain.

Luckily, there are tips and tricks to setting up your office (or makeshift home office) to achieve good posture and ergonomics. Chiropractor Andrew Bang, DC, discusses what to keep in mind to avoid discomfort and injury.

The four fundamentals of ergonomics  

It’s no surprise that sitting all day (especially if you’re hunched over pounding away on a laptop) can have some undesirable consequences to your health. From increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, to painful injuries like carpal tunnel and a stiff neck, properly setting up your desk and workspace should be a priority on your wellness list.    

“When it comes to good ergonomics, it’s really about positioning yourself to avoid injury, pain and fatigue and just improve your overall work performance,” says Dr. Bang.

And who wouldn’t want to achieve all those things?

Dr. Bang explains that there are four key areas to focus on when it comes to your setup:

  • Head.
  • Arms.
  • Back.
  • Movement.

These four fundamentals are the golden rules of ergonomics (whether you’re working in the office or remotely).

“I tell my patients when they’re setting up their workstation, think: head right, arms right, back right and move right,” he explains. “So if you do those four things correctly, it allows you to be in a position where you can avoid pain and a whole list of other injuries.”

Dr. Bang dives further into the four key areas of proper setup.

Your head position

“Your head is like a 10 pound bowling ball when your spine is in a neutral position,” explains Dr. Bang. “And if you get into the wrong position, your spine takes on more of that weight.”

So the farther your head moves away from your neutral spine, the more the weight goes up. Even moving your head 15 degrees forward (so slightly looking down), your head goes from 10 pounds to about 24 pounds! That’s a big increase on your spine, which can quickly lead to neck and back pain.

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Add in looking down at a piece of paper – and the pressure on your neck and shoulders jumps to almost 40 pounds. Do this for several hours and we’re talking major pain and damage, says Dr. Bang.

For this reason, always focus on your spine and head being in a neutral position. Place your computer screen straight in front of you where your eyes are looking primarily at the area of the screen that you use the most. Use books or a box to prop the screen up to the appropriate level.

If you have two screens, put the primary screen right in the center and the secondary screen off to your left or to your right.

“If you can, try to move your secondary screen around,” says Dr. Bang. “Have your secondary screen to the right for a few weeks and then change it to your left in another couple weeks. Good ergonomics is about keeping your neck moveable and avoiding repetitive movements.”

Your arm position

If you use a laptop, you might run into the issue of having your screen up so high that you can’t reach the keys. For this reason I always recommend using a wireless keyboard, says Dr. Bang. If you can’t type comfortably, you’re going to be straining, which will quickly cause neck, trap and wrist issues.

Whether you’re sitting or standing, the preferred position of your arms is going to be 90 degrees. So that means your shoulders need to be down at a resting position (not hunched up to your ears) and your elbows should be bent with your wrists staying neutral.

When it comes to your computer mouse, Dr. Bang recommends using an ergonomics mouse verse a traditional mouse. A normal computer mouse forces your wrist to twist, which can irritate carpal tunnel syndrome or give you general wrist pain. An ergonomics mouse allows the wrist to maintain a neutral position, almost like you’re shaking someone’s hand.

It’s also a good idea to move around your mouse pad from time to time to create a little variety in your positions. Again, focusing on reducing repetitive movement to avoid injury.

Your back position

“Most standard computer chairs have built in lumbar support and the ability to change your height, which is great for customizing your workstation,” says. Bang. “But if you’re working with a normal chair, maybe even at home, there’s a few things you can try when it comes to supporting a good back position.”   

You first want to make sure your legs and thighs are parallel with the cushion of your seat. This allows the pressure of your weight to be evenly distributed and reduces the risk of thigh or leg pain. Make sure your legs aren’t dangling or that you’re not using the rungs of your chair to prop your feet up. If needed, get a box or stool to rest your feet on.

“Sometimes, when we’re really engaged in our work, we tend to lean forward a bit, but your back needs to be placed up against the back of the chair,” explains Dr. Bang. “If you’re constantly leaning forward you’re going to get tired and fatigued and that’s going to lead to tightness and back pain.”

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Instead, try using a lumbar support pillow, which will allow you to sit with the natural curve in your back. Place the pillow in the small of your back and adjust it so that your head is over your neck and shoulders. This even works with a regular, small pillow.  

Think of the curve of your spine like a spring. As gravity bears down on it, the spring can change pressure and distribute it evenly. If you straighten your spine out or overly curve it because you’re in a weird position, you’re going to start to have some discomfort. 

Along with the lumbar support pillow, you can get a chair cushion, which is also going to help distribute your weight. Some cushions have a cut out for your tailbone, which is a common complaint, either from a previous injury or from childbirth.

Movement

“Even if I sit in the best possible position, if I stay there for too long, it’s going to cause me some pain and discomfort,” says Dr. Bang. “Whenever you get stuck doing the same thing, you’re going to get injured. Repetitive movement is a big cause of injury.”

Our joints are made to self-lubricate when we move. (That’s why movement is so good for us!) When we move our muscles we also stretch out from being tense or overstretched from sitting or standing too long.

“I learned a saying from one of my patients that I think is so important – motion is lotion,” says Dr. Bang. “We need to get up and move throughout the day.” 

Set a timer, schedule it on your calendar or make a rule for yourself that during every conference call you’ll try to incorporate movement, even if it’s a simple neck stretch. Try to figure out times throughout your day where a little bit of movement or stretching won’t affect or impact your work.

Blend tasks together. So while you’re reading a long email, you’re stretching. If you’re waiting for your lunch to heat up in the microwave, throw in some movement while you wait. Take advantage of bathroom breaks to make sure you get up every 45 to 60 minutes. Or if you have a standing desk, switch from sitting to standing every hour and the back again.

“Creating variety throughout our day is going to help us combat pain and discomfort,” says Dr. Bang. “Movement is an important piece of good workspace ergonomics.”

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