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  • Ellen Kolber

Working From Home? 10 Tips to Optimize Your Ergonomic Set Up and Your Musculoskeletal Health

Chances are, that unless you have a dedicated home office, you are using your desktop or laptop in a configuration and manner that can lead to discomfort in your back, neck, arms and hands. These can be temporary annoyance that eventually resolves or can lead to long-term issues that can continue to be problematic down the road.

What are the factors that help maintain musculoskeletal health and wellness? Using neutral postures in all your joints increases the efficiency and effectiveness of musculoskeletal structures of the joints. All joints have positions in which they work best - the tendons are less prone to frictional forces, the muscles contract most effectively and the compression forces in the joints themselves are minimized. These are known as neutral postures – not extreme positions of the joint. Our soft tissues generally work best when our joints are positioned the middle of their range of motion. An example is work with your head straight - not to look up or down or to the side when viewing your monitor.

Decreasing static holding postures of your body by letting go of muscle tension. This promotes blood flow, which brings nutrition to the tissues and removes the consequences of muscle metabolism. Movement is generally healthy for our tissues – as long as the same movement is not a performed in a constant and repetitive manner. Motion is lotion!

External forces can also constrain blood flow to tissues and cause discomfort. Examples may include the hard edge of a table on your forearm, or the hard seat of a dining room chair on your buttocks. A hard non-adjustable armrest can push on a major nerve that runs through the elbow. Minimizing the effect of hard surfaces on the body optimizes comfort of-the-moment, as well as improving the body’s overall function and physiology over time.

So what can you do while working at home to keep yourself healthy and feeling good?

1. Listen to your body! If you are experiencing discomfort, consider your seated posture and how you are using your hands, arms, neck and spine. Certain postures and positions that feel comfortable may be OK for short-term use. However, repeated or long-term use of these postures may caused by changes that have occurred as a result of these postures and forces they impose.Addressing concerns early on is the best way to address and prevent possible short and long-term comfort and health concerns.

2. If you’re sitting on your couch or a non-adjustable dining room chair, try putting a small pillow behind you. This can help you support your low back, to sit upright and to use better spinal posture.

3. If you’re sitting at your dining room table in a non-adjustable dining room chair and your feet cannot reach the floor, place a footrest, book(s) or box under your feet. This will help you sit upright and give your legs more stability and support.

4. If you’re working at a laptop at a table and can spare the room, attach an external keyboard and mouse to your laptop. Then place some books or a small box under the laptop so that the top of the screen is about eye level. This will keep you from looking down all day to see the screen.

5. If your back and buttocks need a break, try working for awhile standing. If you’re using a laptop, you can place it on a box in order to raise it higher. However, since you cannot separate the monitor from the keyboard and mouse on a laptop, you may need to choose and vary between favoring the optimal posture of your neck (looking straight ahead) vs. the optimal posture of your elbow (which is 90°) and your wrists (which is straight). Change it up as needed by using the laptop at different heights.

6. Keep devices close to you. Reducing reaches to your mouse and keyboard decreases the effort of your shoulder, neck and back muscles and subsequent reactions to the joint structures.

7. Try to work with straight wrists - not up or down or to the side and elbows at around 90°. Think about driving the mouse from your shoulder, moving in the forearm like a windshield wiper vs. using the muscles in your forearm and moving from your wrist. Sitting on a pillow to raise yourself up may help make this easier. Working with straight wrists decreases pressure to the nerves and tendons that pass through the wrist and connect in the elbow. Ok, easier said than done!

8. Note how much muscle tension you are using. Check to see if you are contracting your muscles more than you need to, by consciously letting go of held tension. Think of yourself as a a highly developed ballet dancer operating your mouse and keyboard. Dancers conserve their energy and muscle effort by learning to minimize muscle tone in ways that are proportionate to the task.

9. Don’t pound your keyboard or squeeze your mouse. Keyboards can wear out, become harder to activate and need to be replaced. Some people have a habit of hitting the keys much harder than is needed and using a death grip on the mouse. These kinds of habits are difficult to change, however, we can learn how to play sports and musical instruments. With some effort we could probably learn new ways of interacting with our devices.

10.Take breaks • Working breaks – create a habit of taking your hands off the keyboard and mouse while reading or reviewing your work. Let them rest in your lap. • Stretch breaks – performing wrist, neck and back stretches intermittently throughout the day helps warm up your muscles and prepare them to take on loads. • Actual breaks – take a meal break for 20-30 minutes. Just like your body needs time to rest between gym workouts, taking rest breaks from computer work allows your soft tissue time to recuperate and return to a more normal physiologic state for working. • Stress breaks – Set the timer on your phone for 1 minute or more. During this time focus your thoughts on slow, relaxed, even breathing and letting go of muscle tone. This may help your focus, create a little more Zen in your life and improve the efficiency and feel of your muscles, tendons and joint structures.

Working from home comes with a host of perks; however, a good ergonomic set up may not be one of them. Try implementing some of these tips and learning some new habits. They may not get you a raise but can pay off in a greater sense of health and wellness in the short and long-term.

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