Freedom from back pain

If you are in a desk job, here is how you can keep fit, says Brinda Sarkar

By Brinda Sarkar
  • Published 17.08.18
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Did you know that we have an 86 per cent of chance of getting repetitive strain injury in office due to lack of breaks? That we have a 60 per cent chance of such injuries due to improper monitor height and 54 per cent chance due to the computer mouse being positioned too high? 

“Everyone begins his day sitting up straight but most are massaging their backs and necks by the end of the day. There’s a balm or pain killer in almost every purse these days,” said physiotherapist Indira Ghoshal, who had come down from Siliguri to speak at an ergonomics workshop for desk-job workers at BG Block community hall. 

“Ergonomics is the study of work performance with emphasis on worker safety. The stream recognises that each individual is built differently and tries to make the job fit him and not make him fit the job,” explained Ghoshal. 

The meet had been organised by the women’s cell of the Indian Association of Physiotherapists and also on the speakers’ list were Debapriya Mukherjee and Tahmina Islam, city-based physiotherapists. 

“Our pan-India association launched its women’s wing today,” said Tanushree Bhattacharya, state head co-ordinator of the body and a resident of BF Block. “Physiotherapy is a male-dominated field but we want to increase women's participation here. We hope to keep organising such workshops to raise awareness about the profession. People need to seek out qualified therapists instead of going to quacks and worsening their condition. 

The speakers then delved into how to make the office more ergonomic- 

CHAIR

No one chair fits all so users must make adjustments to customise it. 

Height - Stand in front of the chair and adjust the height such that the highest point of the seat is just below your kneecap. This will ensure that when you sit with your back against the backrest, your feet would rest flat on the ground. “Short people sitting on a high chair would not be able to do this. Only their toes would touch the ground and their ankles would inadvertently get pulled inwards. This would keep their calf muscles hardened all the while and lead to aches and pains,” explained Mukherjee. 

If it is not possible to adjust the height of your chair, place a foot rest, box or even brick underneath to rest your feet. In case the chair or table in front has a bar to rest your feet on, use it, but never maintain a constant posture for too long. Keep changing your sitting position every 10 minutes. 

Inclination - There would be minimum pressure on the lower back if the sitting person’s trunk to thigh angle is between 120° to 150°. Since such chairs are difficult to come by, try to make do somehow. 

“Such an angle can be created in two ways. You can either modify the back rest or the seat,” explained Mukherjee. “It would not be practical to recline the back rest much as you would then abandon the posture and lean forward every time you need to type. Instead, modify the seat. Get a cushion or fold a towel such that it is thicker towards the buttocks and thinner towards the knees. The angle would be artificially created.”

Back support - Our spines are not ramrod straight. They have curves and we would be most comfortable if our chairs maintain that natural posture. The small of the back is the part where the spine curves to the front at the level of the waist. The chair needs a gentle protrusion in this region to provide support here. But such chairs are tough to come by. 

Wooden chairs — without any curvature or cushioning — are terrible and even chairs that have cushion and curvature are hardly suitable as they are based on consumer data from western countries. “The average height of Caucasians is 6ft whereas in India men are 5.6” and women 5.2” on an average. So an Indian chair that has lifted dimensions from the West will have the curve at a zone much higher than where Indians will have the small of the back. The Indian user’s mid-back will get pushed unnecessarily, creating a new set of aches,” said Mukherjee.

The solution is to get a cushion or roll up a towel and place it where you feel the small of your back. Lean into it at all times. In fact, never sit without a backrest for long even at home. 

Seat depth - There should be space of two to three fingers between the edge of your seat and the back of your knees. This is to minimise pressure on the underside of the leg. If there is no space, place a cushion behind your back. 

Armrest - While sitting, bend your elbow at 90° and relax your shoulders. This is roughly where your chair’s armrest should be. If this is not where it is, don’t use the armrest while typing or using the mouse. A wrong armrest will cause graver damage than using no armrest. 

TABLE 

The work surface should be about the height of your elbow when your arms are hanging down while seated.

Place items that you frequently use - phone, paper, pens - close by so you don't have to stretch around much to reach them. Arrange them in a sort of semi-circle around you. Make sure you don't have to repeatedly reach above or below the shoulder level to find items. 

Your workstation must be free from clutter. This includes the area under your table. USPs, dustbins and the like mustn't hinder leg space. 

“A complete no-no is cradling the phone between your ear and shoulder. This causes neck and shoulder pain and tingling of the hands. Get a head set if you need to speak on the phone for long,” said Ghoshal. 

COMPUTER 

Monitor height - The top of the monitor should be at your eye level and the viewing angle about 15 to 20 degrees below horizontal. This is because people's eyes naturally focus on objects - not at 180 degrees ahead but - about 15 degrees lower. The objective is to move your neck as less as possible.

If you sit lower than the screen, you would have to jut your head out all day to read. “For every inch that the head is pushed forward it adds an additional 10 pounds of weight on the spine,” said Ghoshal. 

Bankers often need to turn from the cash machine on one end of their cubicle to the computer screen on the other. “In such cases, rotate your entire body (with chair) instead of just your neck,” says Mukherjee.

Typists get neck pain if they keep looking down at their notes and then up at the screen. They need document holders.

This can simply be a clipboard on a stand with the notes stuck to it. The notes must be kept next to computer on the side of the user’s dominant eye. To find your dominant eye, look at an object at a distance through a circle made by touching the thumbs and forefingers of your hands. Then shut your left eye and look at the object. Do the same with your right eye. If, for instance, when your left eye was open, the object seemed to change position drastically, your right eye is your dominant one. 

Distance - While seated, extend your arm ahead. The screen should be just beyond your reach. Increase text size if you are unable to read the screen clearly from this distance. 

Glare - Your computer screen mustn’t have a light source right behind. This is because the light would reflect and cause bright spots on the screen where you won’t be able to see anything. You’ll keep tilting head to avoid the glared spots. It’s best to have hidden lights in false ceilings as they bounce off the walls and reach the computer, eliminating glare. 

If your wear spectacles, make sure the lenses are progressive and not bifocal. Those using bifocal lenses have to crane their head up all day to read from the computer. Also opt for anti-glare spectacles. 

Keyboard and mouse - Position the keyboard such that your wrist is straight and elbow bent 90 degrees. Place the mouse at same level as keyboard and keep it close to you. Move the mouse from your shoulder instead of from the wrist. 

If your table doesn't allow such an arrangement, place a ply board between your elbow and mouse. 

In and out of office

If you have to stand for long in the bus while commuting to and from office, alternate your weight between your toes and ankles for five times every 10 minutes. If you have pain in any hand do not use that hand to hang from the overhead handle. 

Use a backpack instead of a sling bag if it's going to be heavy and make the straps short. The backpack should hang on the back not on the buttocks. Besides two shoulder straps, these also have a strap for the lower chest to distribute weight. 

If women do not want to use backpacks, they should opt for cross-body bags and loosen the straps so they sling sideways from one shoulder to the opposite waist. Keep alternating shoulders too. 

Offices should have some casual lounge space and furniture for employees to relax and assume natural positions. \

The temperature in offices must be comfortable. Some offices are so cold that employees have to use shawls and scarves.  

The management should also look into the shifts employees work in. The body clock finds it difficult to adjust to frequently changing shifts and sometimes cannot recover from fatigue due to working overtime.
Sitting is the new smoking

“Sitting is the new smoking,” said Islam. “As soon as you sit electrical activity in the leg muscles shut off, calorie burning drops to a paltry 1 per minute and enzymes that break down fat drop 90 per cent. After two hours of sitting, good cholesterol drops 20 per cent and after sitting for 24 hours insulin effectiveness reduces 24 per cent and risk of diabetes increases.” 

Here’s what she suggested

It’s not enough to go for a walk in the morning and then sit the whole day. Rather, go for a two-minute walk every half hour at office. Research says that standing up 16 times for two minutes is better than 32 minutes of straight exercises. 

If you think you don’t have the time for this, skip your morning walk and come to office half hour early. 

Use phone alarms or fit-bands to remind you to walk and stretch every half hour. 

Use the fitband and set a target of walking 10,000 steps a day.