This story by Eileen Reynolds originally appeared in NYU News.
A stiff neck after that all-nighter with your laptop in Bobst. A dull throbbing in your temples that starts up at about 3:00 pm each workday. That knot in one shoulder that no amount of kneading can seem to get out.
Though they might not be as acutely painful as a broken arm or sprained ankle, these non-athletic injuries—the self-inflicted wounds of 21st-century students, researchers, and office workers everywhere—dramatically affect our mood and ability to focus, as well as our fitness to take part in the physical activities that we enjoy.
What’s worse, spending whole days (or nights) hunched over a computer—which most on college campuses tend to do—has been linked to health problems ranging from osteoporosis and varicose veins to diabetes and colon cancer.
Completely eliminating the elevated risk of mortality associated with a lifetime of sitting (grimly dubbed by many as “the new smoking”) is a daunting task, barring a sweeping change in workplace culture. But there are some concrete things we can all do now to work more safely when we must inevitably spend our days in chairs.
NYU News recently asked Kevin Weaver, clinical assistant professor of physical therapy at Steinhardt, about how to prevent the daily aches and stiffness that too often have us reaching for the ibuprofen bottle. Here are his practical tips for avoiding neck and shoulder problems, the two most common computer-related injuries treated by physical therapists:
Be kind to your eyes—your neck will thank you.
“Believe it or not,” Weaver says, “eye fatigue, which is often what people complain about first, can lead to neck pain.” If you’re straining to see, you’ll unconsciously stick your head out too far forward, so the position of the screen can have a big impact on how hard your neck muscles are working. Weaver’s rule of thumb is to start by setting up your monitor at eye level, about arm’s length away from where you’re sitting. That won’t be always be possible with a laptop, so if you’ll be working on one for hours at a time, consider propping it up on a stand or books and purchasing an inexpensive keyboard attachment to mimic a desktop setup.
Watch out for glare on the screen, too. Sunlight coming in from outdoors and some kinds of overhead lights can make what’s on your screen harder to read, so it’s worth experimenting with different light sources or even turning your overhead lights off, Weaver says. To give the eyes a momentary rest, he says, try looking away from the screen every few minutes and looking at something in the distance—down the hall or out the window and across the street. “Focusing on something at a different distance with different light can get the eyes out of the fatigue pattern, and then you’re ready to go back to work,” Weaver says.
Rein in your mouse.
After neck pain, shoulder trouble is the next most common complaint associated with computer work, Weaver says. The usual culprit? A mouse that’s too high up or too far away. “You don’t want your mouse on a different plane where you’ll be reaching for it,” Weaver explains. To avoid this, he offers these foolproof steps for setting up your desk:
- Start with your screen at eye level (described above) and your chair adjusted so that your legs rest at a right angle with your feet flat on the ground. (If your eyes are even with the screen but your feet don’t touch, use a footrest or pile of books to raise the floor to you.)
- Now tuck your elbows in to your sides and, with your palms facing down, gently windshield wiper your hands from side to side. The area they trace is called your “primary zone,” and both the mouse and keyboard should be within it, down at about lap height, Weaver says. (A tray or drawer installed below the desk can help if the main surface is too high.)
- Once you have everything set, double check that the keyboard and mouse are centered in front of you, keeping in mind that on keyboards with number pads on the right, the main QWERTY area is offset slightly to the left. (To correct this, you’ll want to slide the keyboard to the right a bit.) “People often don’t realize that they’re shifting left to use the keyboard and then right to use the mouse,” Weaver says. If you don’t use the number pad often, you can install a simple device called a “mouse bridge” over those keys to bring the mouse in closer to the center.
Take breaks. Even short ones make a difference.
Even if you follow these tips, working in the same position for hours and hours can cause strain, especially if your posture begins to change without you realizing it. But the solution is simple. “Set your phone alarm to remind you to take breaks,” Weaver says. “Every half hour is ideal, though every hour may be more practical.” When the alarm goes off, all you have to do is stand up and sit back down, giving yourself a fresh start in the event you’ve begun to slouch or let your head creep forward, Weaver says. When you have an extra moment to spare, you can maximize the break by taking a quick walk to get a drink of water or coffee, use the restroom, or say hello to a friend or colleague. If you notice your head pushing forward, Weaver suggests tucking your chin back and tilting your head from side to side for a few seconds. You don’t need a big stretch, he says, just enough movement to break the pattern and give those hardworking neck muscles a rest.
Sitting vs. standing: Why not try both?
“We know from numerous studies that standing is less stressful on your back than sitting is,” Weaver says, “The forces on your spine when you are sitting are much greater.” That’s why easels and drafting tables have long been popular among artists and architects—and why more and more office workers have made the switch to standing desks.
It is possible to stand poorly, though, and being on your feet for eight hours can be tiring at first. For maximum benefits, Weaver recommends an adjustable sit-stand model, so that you can alternate throughout the day.
“Changing position is generally a good thing,” says Weaver, who also suggests switching your mouse from one side to the other if one shoulder is feeling tired. “If you’re in not the most favorable position for half an hour, that’s not a big deal. But if you’re doing it for eight hours, you might set yourself up for a problem.”
Put down the phone.
When he rides the subway, Weaver is struck by the diversity of the passengers—and by the one bad habit that they all seem to share: Regardless of race, age, ethnicity, or gender, “everyone’s head is buried in a smartphone,” he laments. “This promotes horrible neck posture. Smartphones are the bane of my ergonomic existence.”
Here’s the problem: Your head weighs about 10 to 12 pounds in an upright neutral position, but the forces on your neck are greater as the head moves forward. So when you’re looking down at your phone, your neck has to work as hard as it would if the head weighed 60 pounds. For your neck to be in a safe position, you’d have to hold your phone straight out in front of you, which, in addition to tiring out your arms, wouldn’t win you any friends on a crowded train. “I haven’t figured out a solution for it,” Weaver admits. “Maybe virtual reality will make it so we don’t have to hold these devices in the future.”
Until then, he suggests limiting your time curled up with a phone as much as possible. “Even if it’s just an hour or two, it builds on top of all the other time spent at work on a computer, making everything exponentially worse.”
Persistent discomfort? Might be time to check in with a physical therapist.
There’s the sore back you notice after a particularly stressful day at work or a long night finishing up a term paper, and then there’s chronic pain that really starts to interfere with your life. Telling them apart can be surprisingly tough, and because everyone experiences tension and soreness differently, Weaver stresses that figuring out when to seek treatment is a highly subjective, personal decision.
But there are some telltale signs to watch out for, Weaver says, such as numbness or tingling going down from your shoulder and into your arm or hand, which could be a symptom of a pinched nerve or other neurological problem. Muscle or joint pain that keeps you from your normal exercise routine is also something you might consider getting checked out. The good news is that physical therapy is covered by most insurance, and it’s easy to get started—NYU’s Student Health Center has a department staffed by full-time physical therapists (many of whom hold academic appointments in Steinhardt), and your primary care physician can give you a referral. (Outside of NYU, it may even be possible in some cases to go straight to a physical therapist without a referral.)
“Often, with some stretches and strengthening exercises we can clear things up in just a few sessions,” Weaver says.