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Setting up your desk for success

Last Modified: 5/22/2018

Sore muscles, back and neck pain, and even headaches can all result from poor positioning at our desks, but there are ways we can avoid some of the detrimental health effects of working on our computers all day. We asked Dave Girardot, DPT, CEAS, Physical Therapist, Workplace Ergonomics and Rehab, Parkview Occupational Health, to explain how to properly set up a workstation.

How do I know how tall my chair should be? What are some physical symptoms that indicate it needs adjusted?

Elbows should rest near your side, at an angle between 90 and 100 degrees while you're sitting at your workstation, so adjust your chair to achieve this position. With your elbows resting at your side, raise the chair height so that your elbows are even or about 1 inch above the top of your desk surface. This height will correctly position your elbows and allow them to rest on your desk when typing, but it may be too high to provide adequate foot support. To support your feet, try using a paper package for a quick fix, and consider investing in a footrest.

Check your chair height if you ...

  • Notice tightness and/or pain in your lower or back, shoulders, or neck
  • Have consistent headaches, especially as the day continues
  • Have difficulty turning your head, like when driving

What is a good rule of thumb for my keyboard and mouse location? What are some physical symptoms that indicate it needs adjusted?

To keep your elbows and upper arms in the best ergonomic position, avoid reaching. If the mouse and keyboard are far from your desk edge, reaching forward will cause increased rounding through your back and shoulders, change your elbow positioning and contribute to increased muscle tightness. Keep the mouse and keyboard close to the desk edge, and prevent reaching to the side by keeping your mouse directly next to your keyboard.

Proper wrist position plays an important role in preventing injury such as carpal tunnel. Your wrist should be in a “neutral” position, not bending up or down. Often, if you're using the feet underneath the keyboard, the tilt will cause your write to bend upward, so flatten your keyboard if needed. Also, don't let your wrist rest directly on the sharp edge of your desk.

Check your keyboard/mouse position if you:

  • Sit in the corner of your desk/workspace (will moving to a flat edge of desk prevent reaching forward?)
  • Notice pain in your wrist, elbow, or shoulders
  • Notice tightness throughout your forearm
  • Notice Numbness/tingling in your fingers, hand or forearm

Where should my monitor be on my desk? What are some physical symptoms that indicate it needs adjusted?

Tilting your head forward or backward causes increased tightness and imbalances throughout your muscles. Position the top of your monitor at or just below eye level to keep your neck in the most ideal position. Use a paper package underneath your monitor for a quick fix, but an actual monitor riser/stand may be needed.

To limit eye strain, position your monitor about an arm reach away and directly in front of you.  If you use more than one screen, the percentage of use for each screen will determine where to put the monitor.  If using your screens equally, position the middle break of the monitors directly in front of you, in line with your nose, with both monitor edges almost touching and at an angle. This position allows you to use an eye gaze back and forth between monitors instead of turning your neck. If you have a primary monitor that you use at least 75 percent of the time, position it directly in front as if that was the only monitor you use, and place the secondary screen next to it and at an angle.

Check your monitor position if you:

  • Use a laptop screen (this will cause you to look down)
  • Have a hutch/storage overhead that may limit the height of the monitor
  • Notice tightness and/or pain in your lower or back, shoulders, or neck
  • Have consistent headaches, especially as the day continues
  • Have a glare on the screen
  • Have difficulty turning your head, like when driving

Why is this so important?

Have you heard the term, “sitting is the new smoking”?  Research continues to find many of the detrimental health effects of smoking to be similar to health impairments related to sitting for long periods during the day!  With prolonged sitting, your body’s skeletal and muscular systems begin to change. To combat these detrimental health effects and changes, movement is crucial. At least every hour, get out of your chair for 3-5 minutes and move!  Get up and get a water. Go to the bathroom. Stand and march in place. Try anything, as long as movement occurs!  Set an alarm on your phone or computer to give you a reminder to get out of your chair every hour.

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