Ergonomics and Chronic Pain


What is ergonomics?

Ergonomics is the study of how people work in relation to the environment in which they work. Ergonomics focuses on adapting environments (e.g., workplace, home, etc.) to promote efficiency, productivity and comfort. Proper ergonomics can be achieved by examining job descriptions, required tasks, and any physical issues of individuals who perform those tasks.

When most people think of ergonomics, posture support usually comes to mind. However, proper ergonomics involves much more than promoting proper posture. For example, the chair on which a person sits, how they sit on the chair, and the arrangement of needed equipment around the chair are all a part of ergonomics. People can buy ergonomically correct chairs, keyboards, and other pieces of equipment, but unless those tools are properly used, it can be a waste of finances. For example, if someone buys an ergonomic office chair, but still hunches their body over a desk for hours a day, it is a pointless tool.

Can proper ergonomics help with chronic pain?

Proper ergonomics is especially important for reducing or preventing symptoms of chronic pain. For individuals with chronic pain, practicing good ergonomics can help control pain and possibly prevent chronic muscle tension and back pain.

The major issue for individuals with chronic pain isn't simply how they sit or on what they sit, it is how long they sit in one position. Sitting for an extended period in a slouched position puts strain on the back. Failing to periodically move the body or repeatedly doing tasks that use the same muscles can strain various areas of the body like the neck, shoulders, back, hands, wrists and legs. Ergonomics provides ways and tools to adjust these habits in order to maximize comfort and efficiency.

Ergonomic tips

Some general ergonomic tips to incorporate into everyday life at home and work include the following:

  • Get up and move — Try to get up and move the body every 15-30 minutes. Also, occasionally shift positions from sitting to standing. This can combat pain, stiffness and muscle fatigue.
  • Place screens optimally — Tilting the head to view a screen that is placed too high strains the neck. Looking down at phone screens or tablets also strains the neck. The eyes should be level with the top of the screen, and the screen should be approximately an arm's length away.
  • Don't slouch — Sit with a straight back and relaxed shoulders.
  • Get support — Adjustable armrests are a good ergonomic tool. Armrests should be set so the upper and lower arms form a 90-degree angle. This helps keep the wrists straight and fingers relaxed.
  • Plant those feet — If the feet don't easily reach the floor, using a footrest can make a huge difference in leg pain. If the legs are too long and stretch too far, find an adjustable chair that can be raised to a comfortable height.
  • Keep it close — Tools and equipment, such as phones, planners, remotes, etc., should be kept within arm's reach. Having needed equipment close by prevents the need to lean the body forward or turn the body into awkward or uncomfortable positions to reach for them.

It often takes time to determine if ergonomic adjustments are beneficial for specific chronic pain conditions. Practicing proper ergonomics at both work and home can help reduce pain and possibly alleviate some causes of chronic pain. Consulting a physical therapist for ideas about living a more ergonomic lifestyle can be helpful.