A Desk Job Can Be As Damaging As A Car Crash: How To Prevent And Manage Pain

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Although you want your days at the office to challenge you professionally, you may not be so happy to hear that sitting at a desk all day challenges your body in ways that can lead to long-term damage and chronic pain. 

Work-related musculoskeletal issues made up 32 percent of worker injury and illness in 2014 according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although many of these injuries were due to heavy labor, sitting in front of a computer (or otherwise hunched over your desk) can wreak havoc on your body in surprising ways. 

How much damage your body experiences primarily on how you sit while working at your desk. Human bodies weren’t built to sit, especially over long periods of time, according to Michael Fredericson, sports medicine psychiatrist at Stanford Health Care. Furthermore, we tend to slouch or hunch over with our neck protruded, and then there’s the eye strain. All of this places stress on your entire body. 

As physiology would have it, there are ways to work with your body by making ergonomic adjustments to your office environment to reduce daily discomfort. According to a 2014 Sage journal study, creating ergonomic workstations can reduce musculoskeletal and vision problems and boost job satisfaction in employees. 

Although you should consult your physician for any persistent pain, there are additional ways you can address underlying problems. Let’s take a look at some of the areas of the body most commonly affected by sitting for extended periods of time. We’ll also talk about effective ways you can target these areas with therapeutic techniques designed to reduce or prevent pain. 

Lower Back Pain 

The lower back is often the first area where people feel pain from sitting for extended periods of time. In fact, this is the most common type of work-related back pain. This is most often due to slumping back or slouching forward, throwing your spine out of alignment. This puts significant strain on muscles and ligaments in your back. 

Whether you are experiencing occasional lower back pain or an ongoing ache, you should always address acute muscle tension as quickly as possible. You can rock your hips back and forth while seated with a rounded back, then your hips tilted back. 

As a more long-term fix, ensure that your back reaches the back of your chair so that you’re able to sit upright. If there is a gap there, you can use a lumbar pillow to keep you from collapsing backward or forward. You also want your feet resting flat and your thighs parallel to the floor. Use a foot stool if necessary. Additionally, abdominal exercises strengthen your core, taking pressure off of your back and making good posture easier to maintain. 

Wrist Strain 

Overuse and awkward positioning of your wrists often accompany a desk job. When you use a mouse and keyboard, parallel tendons in your wrists move back and forth, causing friction known as microtrauma. This results in fatigue and inflammation of the tendons. 

Poor posture can indirectly contribute to wrist strain. When you hunch your shoulders forward, downward blood flow is restricted to your hands which can tingle or feel numb. For a short-term fix, try a prayer stretch, aka Buddha stretch. Put your palms and fingers together, hands in front of your chest. Lower your hands until you feel a comfortable stretch and hold for 5 seconds. 

As a long-term solution, make sure your wrists are floating naturally in a horizontal position, not resting on your desk or higher than your hands. A wrist rest can make this easier to accomplish, but don’t make it a crutch. Instead, use it for occasional breaks throughout the day. 

Shoulder And Neck Pain 

One cause of neck and shoulder pain is putting your computer or keyboard too far away on your desk. This causes you to jut your shoulders and neck forward, which throws them out of alignment and strains soft tissues and muscles. An Annals of Internal Medicine study found that frequent shoulder and neck stretches, as well as chiropractic care, were more effective for neck pain relief than over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription anti-inflammatory medications. A quick fix for this type of work-related pain is a chin tuck, also known as neck retraction. 

Stand or sit upright and push your head forward, with your chin jutting out as much as possible. Then, reverse the movement slowly by pulling your head back as far as you can go comfortably. Keep your head level throughout the stretch, and you should feel it at the base of your neck. Repeat up to 5 times. 

For lasting relief from neck and shoulder pain, place your computer directly in front of you instead of at an angle on one side of your desk. This keeps your neck from craning in an awkward position. Don’t cradle the phone between your shoulder and your ear, either. Use a headset instead.

Eye Strain 

Both staring at a computer screen and having your monitor too far away can contribute to eye fatigue and strain. You also blink less often when looking at your computer, which can lead to fatigue and dryness. 

You can get some instant relief from eye strain by looking at something in the distance every 20 to 30 minutes. Do this for 20 seconds, or even better, get up and go chat with a co-worker for a bit, or climb a couple of flights of stairs. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommendation is that your computer screen be 20 to 40 inches away, with the top of your computer roughly at eye level. You can also use a filter over your screen for reducing glare, and make sure your vision prescription is appropriate for the recommended distance. 

Stiff Hips 

Sitting in a bent position daily, whether at your desk or on your couch, shortens your hip flexors, which is a group of muscles in the front of your hips. This causes pain in your hips and lower back. 

To quickly relieve this type of tension, kneel on your left knee, with your right knee at a 90-degree angle. Shift your hips forward, bending your front knee and tucking your butt under until you feel a deep, but comfortable, stretch in the left hip. Hold for 20 seconds, switch legs, and repeat. 

For lasting relief and prevention, stand up from your chair regularly to increase circulation and give your muscles a break. If possible, do this every 20 to 30 minutes. Repetition and diligence with this practice will go a long way in easing and preventing work-related pain. Apps like Big Stretch Reminder or Stand Up! can help remind you to get up and move to reduce zoning out on your work for extended periods of time. 

Here are a few more treatment options for acute or persistent pain in multiple areas of the body. 

Orthopedics 

In essence, orthopedics is the research and study of the musculoskeletal system and was first founded for the treatment of debilitating diseases in children. There are general orthopedists, as well as specialists, that target specific areas of the body. Specializations in the field of orthopedics include: 

• Pain management 
• Sports medicine 
• Arthritis and osteoarthritis 
• Injury care 
• Physical and occupational therapy 
• Joint replacement surgery 
• Back and spine surgery 

Orthopedic specialists also treat many other diseases, including diabetes, cerebral palsy, bone spurs and bone and muscle infections. When seeking a specialist in orthopedics, it’s important to narrow your search to include your specific condition(s). This can help shorten the length of the healing process. 

Acupuncture 

Acupuncture is an ancient practice, but was not recognized by Western countries or regulated in the U.S. until the 1970s. Today, this complementary therapy is used in treating many diseases and conditions, including work-related pain. 

As a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), acupuncture involves applying needles, pressure, and heat to target areas of pain. By invigorating these points, acupuncturists can help redirect your body’s natural energy, also known as chi. The theory is that pain and illness originate from imbalances or blockages of this energetic force. 

Acupuncture has been found to effectively alleviate stress, relax muscles, and contribute significantly to pain management. An experienced acupuncturist can treat more complicated health issues, including infertility, digestive disorders, skin problems, and menstrual irregularities, all by encouraging the body’s natural healing processes. 

Anti-Inflammatory Diet 

Research shows that diet is essential as an integral component of your pain management program. In particular, a vegan or Mediterranean diet (or a diet inspired by them) controls cholesterol and insulin levels, and reduces inflammation. Inflammation is a natural immune response by your body to purify itself of toxins. This causes pain and, over time, can result in chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, stroke, and depression. 

However, an anti-inflammatory diet can help purge your body of these toxins, as well as ease medication side effects that cause memory loss, sleepiness, and brain fog. They can also help you manage your work-related pain. 

Being a desk jockey isn’t all bad. In fact, it can contribute to your life in positive ways, including paying the bills and giving you the opportunity to work outside of the home, surrounded by those working on similar goals. 

Although it comes with its challenges, working at a desk all day may be exactly what works for you professionally, and if you enjoy it, you shouldn’t have to quit your day job. Instead, you can make ergonomic and lifestyle changes, in conjunction with medical and complementary therapies, that will make an amazing difference in relieving or preventing your work-related pain.

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