As if sitting at your desk all day needed anything to make it more unpleasant. An extremely common problem physiotherapists get presented with is neck, shoulder and back pain associated with periods of sitting at a desk. A common presentation of this is an office worker who reports dull, aching pain in any of these regions that gets worse as the day wears on. It’s usually better in the mornings and they don’t notice any issue when they are off on the weekends. They feel the need to self massage, some poor souls try to rub their aches and pains on door frames and the edges of their desks. But the pain often recurs and can get worse over time.

Let’s first look at why this is happening. First of all, our bodies are not designed to be static. We are dynamic creatures whose vast body systems rely on movement to operate ideally. Although this condition is often referred to as “postural syndrome”, I do not want the implication to be that a “perfect posture” will eradicate it. The perfect posture (if there is one), if maintained for several hours, is still a static one and it is often the immobility, over the set up, that aggravates the pain. It is said now that “the best posture is the next posture”.

Having said that, we do recognise that muscles feel the best when they sit at their mid length. That means, not in their shortened or lengthened position. If you sat with your fingers stretched backwards for three hours, they would probably start to ache. If you sat with them clenched in a fist, they would also probably start to ache. This is not surprising to us, and yet people seem to be quite surprised that sitting for hours with their shoulders hunched forwards and their necks craning towards a screen results in discomfort.

So how can we fix it?
There are a few very effective ways of managing pain you develop while sitting at your desk. The first is movement. This is something that people struggle to implement but is actually quite easy. Keeping a drink bottle at your desk and hydrating regularly generally forces you to get up to go to the bathroom frequently. Setting a timer on your phone to go off every hour and getting up to move about, or do a quick set of exercises can also help. Having a resistance band next to your desk and doing a set of 10 rows, shoulder shrugs, neck turns, jumping jacks – honestly, almost anything – can help relieve and mitigate the onset of pain. You don’t have to do a whole workout, just 10 of something, frequently throughout the day, can help relieve pain and stiffness in your body.

The second thing you can do to help is check your desk set up. Making sure you have an ergonomic set up is helpful in reducing pain or extending the length of time before it starts. Make sure your monitor is head height or slightly higher so you are looking straight ahead, or slightly up, to look at it. Sit in the middle of your chair (unless you have quite an upright chair with a good lumbar support) on the bones of your bottom and tilt your pelvis slightly forward so you have a slight curve in your lower back. Sit as tall as you can without tightening your muscles, you should feel open but not rigid. Your feet should be flat on the floor but your seat high enough that your hips sit above your knees. If they are too low, you will curve your lower back and be more likely to bring on pain. Widen your shoulders so you are open across the chest and back. Then relax! It sounds rigid and tense, but it is a skill that needs to be learned through practice, and will get easier if you keep trying to do it.

If you can get a proper standing desk, this is also an excellent management tool. They are usually adaptable, being able to be sitting desks as well. I do recommend using it both ways to create variety in your posture and contribute to your movement quota throughout the day!

If you are continuing to struggle with desk-related pain even after trying this, come and see one of the team at Healthzone Physiotherapy. Sometimes some manual therapy techniques can help to nudge these issue in the right direction and we can make sure you are implementing the right techniques to reduce these issues.

Contact HealthZone Physiotherapy today on (09) 477 2098

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Rebecca graduated from AUT in 2008 with her Bachelor of Health Science in Physiotherapy and started working in a West Auckland private practice. She quickly gained an interest in sports physiotherapy including injury prevention and management. Rebecca worked for four years with premier and reserve club rugby teams including Waitemata and Kumeu / Helensville. She was the physio for the Western Pioneers team in 2012 when they won the North Harbour competition. Rebecca also practiced as a community physiotherapist administering the Otago Exercise Programme which focused on falls prevention for the independent elderly. Through these clients, she developed a curiosity in chronic pain conditions. While she has had plenty of experience in standard post surgical rehabilitation, she took a particular interest in Functional Reactivation Programmes, which work with people suffering persistent pain and complex recoveries post surgery or injury. Rebecca takes an interest in working with clients who have exhausted their channels within the health profession for the management of their pain and enjoys the challenge of helping these patients manage their conditions and return to activities of daily living. To aid in this work, she went on to get her Postgraduate Certificate in Rehabilitation from AUT. Rebecca’s passions include travel, yoga, food, comedy and film – don’t get her started on the topic of movies if you don’t have the time and energy to discuss them with her. She lives in central Auckland and is fiercely local – preferring to commute every day across the bridge than to live any distance away from friends and family!