On-the-Job Training

Local physical therapist shares seven ways to stay loose at work—and avoid neck and back problems

Sitting and standing for long periods of time is the norm in the work world these days. Even if your posture is perfect and your ergonomics are by the book, spending eight hours a day at your computer can lead to dysfunction and derangement, which leads to neck and back pain.

Which inevitably leads people like you to people like me. As a physical therapist, I get daily reminders of how this trauma unfolds.

When you sit for long periods of time, there’s a decrease in blood flow to certain tissues. Pressure then builds up in your discs, whether neck or low back, and if you do not have appropriate posture during these times, a dysfunction is bound to emerge (where the tissue is irritated). And if this is not corrected or cared for, a derangement can occur (where the tissue is actually damaged). While you’re just trying to survive another day, each bit of postural laziness adds up—that lean forward, that slight slouch from fatigue. Over time these positions can change the soft-tissue alignment and cause poor mechanics and inappropriate support.

Research shows that 80 percent of Americans will experience some type of low back pain in their lifetime. From my 23 years of experience, I believe it. I also know that percentage can be reduced with a few little adjustments to your routine—and, no, one of them is not purchasing one of those expensive ergonomic chairs.

The first step you’ve probably heard before: Form good habits. The best way to sit, for example, is to use the 90-degree rule, which is feet flat on the floor, back against the chair at a 90-degree angle, head forward. The screen of the computer should be at a 90-degree angle, straight ahead. Arms should rest either on the chair arms or on the desk.

The more radical idea is to add a few exercises to your workday routine. Don’t worry, your office mates probably won’t even notice. In fact, the first thing I tell patients is to get up out of the chair every 45 minutes and take a short walk. Pretty simple idea, right? But too few people do it.

I also recommend postural relief exercises, especially those created by the New England Spine Institute. I’ve highlighted a few of them on this page. Take a five-minute break every couple of hours and give them a try. They will help increase blood flow, help lymphatic drainage, decrease tension and improve appropriate ergonomics. In other words, they’ll make you feel better, which will make you perform better, if not live better.

Workplace Stretches

These exercises will help with some of the overuse injuries caused by sitting at a desk for long periods of time. They should be performed five times per day.

1. Sit up with head straight. Lift chest upward while moving shoulder blades down and back, as if squeezing a tennis ball between them. Perform a light chin tuck, as if making a double chin. You may experience a mild stretch in the base of your neck. You may also have some muscle soreness in your shoulder blade and chest regions, but it will resolve in a few days. This stretch should be held for 10-12 seconds and repeated 25 times.

2. Interlock fingers behind the back while turning elbows inward and straightening arms. You may also use a doorway for this stretch (see Figure 1), which is for shoulders and arms. Hold this for 5-10 seconds for two repetitions. 3. To stretch forearms, use one hand to force the other hand into either extension or flexion. Hold for 10-15 seconds for 2-3 repetitions.

4. To stretch the lower back, sit with left leg bent over the right; rest elbow on the right leg/upper thigh area; and apply steady pressure toward the right elbow while looking over left shoulder (see Figure 2). Do this on both sides, holding 15 seconds for 2-3 repetitions.

5. Interlace fingers, turn palms upward above head and straighten arms. Elongate arms and feel a stretch through upper arms and ribs (see Figure 3). Hold 10-20 seconds for 2-3 repetitions.

6. Sitting in a chair, squeeze buttocks together, holding 10 seconds while sucking in belly button (pulling it toward the spine), then release. Do one set of five to increase blood flow to the buttocks area and help to stabilize lower back.

7. Roll your ankles in a circular direction 5 times, to the left and right.

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