images-6The allure of the internet and the demands of work have many of us spending inordinate amounts of time hunched over our desks and staring at computer monitors.  Add stress to the equation and the outcome is likely to be complaints of neck or back pain, headaches, jaw pain, or repetitive stress injuries (such as carpal tunnel syndrome).  Here are some simple steps you can take to launch a pre-emptive strike and prevent the computer from winning!

1. Sit upright.  Good posture is key, but is easier said than done.  Until you are used to sitting erectly, the muscles of your low, mid and upper back may feel tired. Take mini posture breaks for relief.

2. Use a lumbar (low back) support or ergonomic chair that has one built in.

3. Set the height of your (adjustable height) chair relative to your desk so that when you sit with upright posture, your forearms can rest comfortably on the desktop for writing.  If your chair is too high, you will naturally slump forward.  If it is too low, you will have to hike your shoulders and over-use your upper trapezius muscles (the muscles you can see and feel when you shrug).

If you are on the short side, and your feet don’t rest on the floor when you set the chair height correctly, put something under them to bring the floor up to you instead of lowering your chair.

4. Use a headset to avoid cradling the phone to your ear in order to free up your hands to keyboard or write.  Prolonged positioning with your head tilted to the side will inevitably lead to increased tension in the muscles and pain.

5. Position your computer keyboard and monitor directly in front of you.  For those looking at multiple screens, this is an obvious challenge. Adjustable monitor arms are the key.

Spending more time looking straight ahead and less time with your neck rotated to one side will help you avoid neck pain.

6. Set the height of the monitor(s) so that when you sit erectly, your eyes will be focused on the upper portion of the screen.  This will allow you to scan the monitor with your eyes without having to nod your head.

 7. Keep your mouse close enough so that you can avoid reaching too far to use it.

8. Use wrist rests for your keyboard and mouse (if you don’t have adjustable ergonomic equipment).

Avoid leaning firmly on these supports, but rather use them to ensure that your wrist is in a more neutral position (in line with your forearm) or at a slightly negative/downward angle when you are keyboarding or using the mouse.  This prevents you from cocking the wrist, which puts excessive stress on the extensor muscles/tendons of your forearm as well as tension on the carpal tunnel at the wrist.  Leaning on the wrist rests for a prolonged period can also result in carpal tunnel problems due to compressive forces, which put pressure on the median nerve.

9. If you are at an “L” shaped desk, move your hips and shoulders together when turning from side to side.  Do so by rotating your seat to face the part of the desk you are reaching toward or on which you are working.  This is the sitting equivalent to pivoting rather than twisting.

10. Take stretch breaks for a few moments every 30 – 45 minutes or so to relieve the tension in your neck muscles.

Stretch gently by leaning your head to one side with your neck in a neutral position, in slight flexion (bending forward), and in very slight extension (bending backward only minimally). Each position will stretch different muscle fibers.  To intensify a stretch, gently reach downward with the arm opposite the side to which you lean your head (without side-bending your trunk).  Avoid doing neck circles when stretching and always stop a stretch or modify your position to avoid pain, dizziness, numbness or tingling.

Other stretches, for muscles in your forearms or for the nerves running from your neck to your hand, may also be recommended for those with tightness or who are experiencing specific symptoms.The best way to stretch may be to activate muscles that inhibit the ones that are tight. This is called qualitative lengthening. Consult a physical therapist for more information.

11. Begin a strengthening program to build strength and endurance in the muscles that stabilize your shoulder blades (scapulae) – the middle and lower traps, rhomboids and serratus – as well as your core and rotator cuff.  Adequate strength will foster good shoulder mechanics, particularly important for those who perform overhead activities.  Use good form when exercising to prevent stronger muscles (such as the aforementioned upper traps) from taking over when working the upper body.

 12. Stretch your lats and chest muscles (pecs/pec minor) – if they are tight, in order to help keep your shoulder blades from tilting forward.  Again, consult a PT for the best ways to lengthen these muscles.

Weak scapular stabilizers and shoulder external (outward) rotators, as well as tight pectorals, encourage rounded shoulders and forward tilted shoulder blades.  This leads to a narrowing of the space occupied by the rotator cuff tendons.  The end result could be rotator impingement, wear and tear of the tendons (tendinosis) or even a rotator cuff tear.  You are particularly susceptible to these overuse injuries if you participate in throwing or other overhead sports.

13. Seek medical attention if you experience recurrent headaches, neck, jaw or shoulder pain, particularly if that pain radiates to your arm or hand.  Likewise, complaints of persistent low back pain, or pain that radiates to your buttocks or lower extremities, should also be addressed by a physician.

Follow Abby’s health and fitness tips on Twitter @abcsims

About the author

Abby serves as the Injury Expert for CBS New York where, since 2010, her Injury Breakdown Blog examines injuries in professional sports. She also blogs on health & fitness as well as sports injuries for Huffington Post, and Recovery Physical, where her blog earned a top ten mention for physical therapy blogs in 2012 @ In a ranking of the Top 30 Healthcare Blogs for 2012, Top Masters in Healthcare also rated Abby’s blog in the top three in Physical Therapy! Abby is the founder of Fit-Screen and she welcomes your comments and questions!