What can I do to reduce my risk of pain and injury while at work?
Most jobs come with occupational hazards, any condition of a job that puts you at greater risk for injury. While we normally equate those who have physically demanding jobs such as professional athletes, firefighters, laborers, and the like with a higher risk of experiencing occupational hazards, even sedentary jobs such as those that require sitting at a desk come with inherent risks. Damage to eyesight from long hours looking at a computer screen, inhalation of toxic chemicals such as printer ink, and repetitive motion injuries are all common examples of occupational hazards desk workers can be subjected to. While it takes a special type of strength and flexibility for a centerfielder to avoid a hamstring strain while sprinting to catch a long fly ball, it also takes workplace specific strength and flexibility for an IT consultant to avoid a herniated disc from reaching forwards for a file from the bottom drawer for the 10,000th time. Just as the professional baseball player works to maintain and improve their strength and flexibility to prolong their playing career, so too should an office employee work preventatively to reduce their risk of pain and injury.
Let’s take a look at the body, working from the bottom up, to see what areas can become tight from working long hours at a desk, potentially leading to pain down the road:
Calves – the calves, a two joint muscle which is prone to muscle shortening, are approximately at a 90 degree angle in a seated position. When these muscles become too tight, problems can arise in the Achilles’ tendon. Standing with the balls of your feet on the edge of a step allowing your heel to lower will help prevent Achilles’ tendinopathy in the future.
Hamstrings – the hamstrings, the muscles in the back of your thigh, are another two joint muscle that assist in squatting, stair climbing, and extending your thigh while walking. These muscles directly impact lower back and knee pain. Standing with your hips square to a stationary chair, put your heel up on the seat of the chair with your toes pointed up. Lean forwards tipping at the hips, not rounding your low back, to feel a stretch through the back of your thigh.
Hip flexors – the hip flexors originate from the front of your lumbar vertebra and attach on the femur. When sitting for long periods of time, these muscles are exceptionally prone to becoming tight and increasing the risk of low back pain. To stretch these, square your hips to a stationary chair in front of you. Put one foot up on the seat of the chair, keeping the back knee straight. Bend the front knee and lunge forwards into the chair. Now, lean backwards to feel a stretch in the front of your hip with the foot remaining on the ground.
Pectoral muscles – reaching forwards for the keyboard, mouse, stapler, phone, etc repetitively allows the shoulders to round forwards and “cave in” so to speak. Standing in a door way, with the forearms on the door frame in an “it’s good” field goal position then stepping forwards will stretch the pectorals major and anterior shoulder muscles, allowing you to sit more upright. This will help to reduce the risk of neck, shoulder, and low back pain.
Thoracic spine (mid back) – going hand in hand with pectoral tightness, all the tasks necessary of an office employee require reaching forwards and working directly in front of the body. This breeds poor posture, as is readily evidenced by walking around observing people at their desks. People have a tendency to lean forwards, rounding their upper back into a “C” shape. This can lead to mid back pain as well as predispose individuals towards increased neck pain. Sitting tall at the edge of the chair, put the hands behind the head. Arch your back backwards, trying to extend as far as possible while staying tall. Squeeze the shoulder blades together for 3 seconds, then relax. Repeat 10 times.
Forearm muscles – typing, writing, and using a mouse extensively throughout the day all utilizes the wrist extensor muscles on the outside of the forearm. Repetitively using these muscles can predispose one to getting lateral epicondylitis, or “tennis elbow.” Start by extending your arm out, keeping the elbow straight. Make a fist with the arm that is straight, and with the other hand pull the fist downwards towards the ground. You can also rotate the arm 1/4 turn and pull the fist inwards towards your chest.
Neck muscles – sitting in good posture requires small muscles to work hard to maintain an upright position, however, when these small muscles get fatigued, larger muscles such as your upper shoulder/neck muscles kick in and help take over some of the load. Especially with frequent reaching and use of the arms, the upper trapezius muscles can become overworked and fatigued. Sitting tall at the edge of your chair, put your left arm behind your back. Take your right hand, and reach over your head to gently grab the left side of your head, pulling your right ear down towards your right shoulder. You should feel a stretch through your left upper shoulder and neck.
The author of this article is Ryan Mertz, PT, DPT from Athletico – South Loop.