Preventing pain in the workplace should be an essential part of fighting the rising prevalence of chronic pain in our society. The work environment can often become a source or contributing factor for many chronic pain conditions. As many of us spend more of our wakeful hours at work than anywhere else, it behooves us to optimize this environment to better support our health and well-being as much as possible.
According to recent data from the Institute of Medicine, pain cost us between $297 billion and $335 billion in lost productivity in 2010. The leading causes of time missed from work due to pain are headaches, back pain, arthritis and musculoskeletal pain, respectively. A 2006 study by the American Pain Foundation found that 89 percent of Americans with chronic pain choose to go to work rather than stay home, and 46 percent of those working with pain reported that their pain impacted their job performance.
For people who work at typical computer work stations, the most common sore spots are the arms, upper backs/shoulders and neck. Prolonged sitting creates weakness in the legs and tightness in the hips and lower back. I think excessive computer work causes a functional separation between the upper and lower halves of the body. What I mean by that is from the lower back down to the legs, things are pretty quiet while the arms and hands are active and the upper back is straining to support their constant activity.
The body is designed to create its center of support from the core and the legs, yet we don’t engage them when working at our typical work stations. Instead, we shift our support center up to the base of our neck, upper back and tops of our shoulders. This causes a tightening and elevation of these areas. As a result, our shoulder blades get pulled up and apart, as opposed to together and down. This change in the positioning of the shoulder blades causes postural problems, weakness, and upper back and neck pain. Here are some tools to help counteract these painful pitfalls:
• Postural Correction- Use this to offset potentially painful postural changes created by excessive computer work. Slide your shoulder blades down as if into your back pockets and bring them together in the mid-back. While doing this, your chest will open and the curve in your lower back will expand. In order to maximize this motion, your elbows need to rotate inward toward your sides, and your chin should tuck slightly to lift the top of your head. Keep a piece of colored tape or some other reminder at your workstation and do this postural correction ever time you look at it.
• Stand and Extend- This will help create length throughout your spine and joints. Stand with your arms at your side and your palms facing forward. Bring your feet together so they touch and tighten your buttocks so that your pelvis pushes forward. Let your shoulder blades slide down toward your pockets while lifting the top of your head to the sky. Take a several deep breaths.
• Hip Stretch- This will help prevent tightness in the hips and prevent lower back pain. Stand with your back to your chair. Place your right foot on the seat of your chair and either slide your chair backward with your foot or simply just stretch your leg. Consider holding on to your desk for balance. Repeat the same move with your left foot.
• Deep breathing- Use this to help your body relax. Take a moment to concentrate on the slow outward and inward movement of your belly while breathing through your nose. Try closing your eyes to avoid distraction and place a hand on your belly to focus on the breath.
• Chest expansion- This exercise is to prevent pain in the shoulders, neck and upper back. Sit tall at your chair and raise your hands straight up overhead. Now gently pull your arms back toward your ears and press your mid-back against your chair. Keep the shoulder blades down while stretching open your chest and rib cage.
• Wrist Stretch- Overused tendons and muscles in the arms and hands need to be released. Once you get home from work, get down on the floor on your hands and knees. First, rotate your hands so that your fingers now point toward you as opposed to away from you. Slowly lean back toward your heals to stretch the tendons in your forearms. Return to the starting position, but instead of putting your palms down on the floor, bend your wrists toward you and touch the floor with the backs of your hands with your fingers pointing toward you. Again, slowly lean back stretching a different group of tendons in the forearms.