Back pain? Sit right!

Why sitting slumped in front of your PC, or laptop, won't help your back's cause one bit

Using the laptopWhat do terrorism, the weather, traffic snarls and backaches have in common? They are all faceless, unpredictable, and, yes, universally accepted as great conversation starters.

Oh, how else can you ruminate endlessly on movement restriction, or how your body feels like when it has gone through a rigorous gymnastic symposium without going to the gym!

When your back breaks

A case in point: Manish Jain overstretched his back for long. When asked to break his hectic schedule as an architect and make time for his daily date with the physiotherapist, he steadfastly refused. He believed, hopefully, that his back pain would disappear just as it had arrived — suddenly.

A few weeks ago, when he was about to board a flight to New Delhi for an important meeting, he was terrorised with excruciating pain in his lower back. He had to be admitted to the hospital and put on traction for a week.

So much for “It-can-never-happen-to-me” syndrome.

Your spinal chord has been built to stand straight all day and not to shoot arrows at birds in the trees. Alas, no one ever contemplated that man would soon be shooting away at his computer keyboard while ignoring shooting pains in one’s back. Evolution, unfortunately, is slower than technology. But, you know how good we are at cheating the system, don’t you? Ergo, ergonomics!

Exemplars like Manish are far from being the exception. In fact, they are fast becoming the norm.

Incorrect posture

Long work hours and traffic snarls mean roughly 1-3 office workers suffer from some form of back ailment, owing to prolonged incorrect posture.

With office often doubling up as home for young 20- and 30-somethings, this spells wasted man hours and sickness that companies can ill afford. Office workers couldn’t agree more. Says architect D Padmanabh: “There are times, when at the end of the day, in office, you feel like you’ve been through a long trek. Your arms and shoulders feel like they have minds of their own.” Agrees Yogesh Kadam, an IT professional, “Last month, I had to be hospitalised for a couple of days and put on traction since my back acted up badly. It was impossible to get up from bed without help.”

Tales like these make the science of ergonomics the need of the hour.

Why ergonomics

Historically, ergonomics was another name for human factor. Today, ergonomics refers to designing work environments for maximising safety and efficiency.

Engineering psychology – a part of ergonomics – is now a growing speciality dealing with workplace or occupational ergonomics.

Also, what companies once thought as the bottom line trade-off between safety and efficiency, now embrace ergonomics because they have learned that designing a safe work environment can also result in greater efficiency, productivity, and optimal wellbeing for employees.

To illustrate one example: US laws now insist on a safe work environment. No wonder why there’s growing interest in ergonomics – from ergonomic furniture to ergonomic training. No small reason too why it is in the design of the workplace as a whole that the greatest impact of ergonomics is seen for good posture and vibrant health

The chair revolution

The ergonomic revolution has, indeed, re-invented the ubiquitous chair — the furniture that is used by all of us to the maximum extent.

Let’s examine what makes the ergonomic office chair perfect — a chair that you would do well to look out for, and use at your office and/or home.

  1. Chair recline, or tilt. The chair must pivot at the top of the base post and help lift your knees slightly while your back descends
  2. Seat pan angle adjustability. This feature must provide a forward tilt, by which the thighs slope downwards
  3. Armrests. These support the arms, reducing the stress on the shoulders and possibly the upper arms. They could be padded to avoid pressure on the elbows and lower arms
  4. Lower back support. This is intended to prevent, to the extent possible, the flattening of the lumbar spine [lower back] which occurs in most people when seated. Lumbar support is usually provided in the form of gentle curves in the backrest.

Refreshing exercises

Let’s take a look at some common and refreshing exercises that keep you fit all day long. These can be done even at your work place during your short breaks.

Eyes: Focus both eyes to your sides, together. Do so to the left and right sides alternately five times each, without turning your neck or head.

Similarly, do so to top and bottom five times each alternately. Ensure that your head and neck are steady and are not moving while you move your eyes. Now, rotate your eyes as to form a circle, both eyes focusing together at each point, five times in the clockwise direction and five times in the anti-clockwise direction.

Neck: Breathe in, turn your neck to your right side and bring back to the normal position while you breathe out. This is done five times each to both right and left sides alternately.

Similarly, breathe in and tilt your neck up so as to look at the roof. Now, bend down so that your chin touches your body while you breathe out. This is done alternately up and down five times each at your own pace. Now, rotate your neck as to form a circle while you breathe normally. While you rotate, your head should be bent down first taking it to one shoulder, then bending back, now touching the other shoulder, and then coming to the initial position. This can be done five times in the clockwise and anti-clockwise direction.

Useful Tips

Here are a handful of useful tips to ensure a happy, healthy back at the workplace.

  • The best place for your keyboard is right in front of you, at elbow height
  • Keep your keyboard tilted slightly away from you [backward tilt]. This will allow you to place your hands and fingers comfortably with a gentle curve
  • Be sure that you can adjust your keyboard placement, as well as your desk and chair height, and also monitor position
  • Your elbows should be at about a 90-degree bend
  • Your forearms should be parallel to the ground
  • Your wrists should be straight; they should not bend up, or down
  • Avoid bending your wrist far too much
  • Your hands should be placed in a straight line with your arms
  • Keep a neutral posture
  • Do not hit the keyboard hard. Use soft touch; it is good for you
  • Use your finger pads to hit the keys, not your finger tips
  • Keep your arms relaxed as you type
  • Keep your shoulders upright, with your upper arms resting at the sides of your body
  • Use your wrist rest to relax your arms between bouts of typing, and not during the process
  • Take frequent breaks.
Dr Mansi Patil, BPT, is a Navi-Mumbai based physiotherapist and a freelance writer.


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