How to Sit at a Computer


By Michael Crawford, D.C., D.A.A.P.M.


If you sit at a computer, you need to read this article!!


One of the most common problems I encounter as a doctor is head, neck , upper back and even lower back pain from sitting improperly at a computer. People sit straight up in the chair, or lean forward, or they reach for the keyboard, or crane their neck forward to see the screen. Any one of these practices will cause a pain problem, but most often I find that people coming to me in pain are doing all of the above. Sitting improperly at the computer can cause any of these problems, neck pain, upper back pain, headache, low back pain, and hand or arm tingling, numbness, or swelling. If you have any of these problems, you should consult with me.


But let us get back to sitting at a computer properly. First, you need to sit back in your chair and let the chair back support your weight. Try it! Sit straight up in your chair, now lean back against the chair. Feel the difference? When you lean back you let all your back muscles relax! When you sit straight up the muscles have to be tense to support your weight. The tense back muscles will eventually tire, lactic acid will build up, and the muscles will begin to hurt.


Even worse is leaning forward. That takes double effort! It is really simple physics. For every 15 degrees forward you lean, you cause the muscles in your low back and buttocks to hold up double your upper body weight. Say you weigh 140 lbs. From the waist up you weigh 70 lbs. Lean forward 10 to 15 degrees, your low back and buttock muscles are now supporting 140 lbs. That is like wearing a 70 pound backpack, and how long could you do that?


Now that you are leaning back against the chair, pull your chair up under the desk. When you raise your hands the keyboard should be right there, almost in your lap. You should not have to reach your arms or hands forward at all, just bend your elbows, hands come straight up and right onto the keys. When you reach your arms forward the upper back muscles have to work hard all the time you are on the keyboard and that will cause upper back pain eventually. Reaching for the mouse is another problem. Pull it in close and use an arm rest. A wrist rest is also good to rest your wrists on in front of the keyboard.


Sitting with your low back against the back of the chair, leaning back so you can relax your back muscles, feet on the floor or a box or phone book, if necessary, reach your arm straight out towards the screen. The screen should not be further away than your wrist. This is where your eyes focus. Any further away and the eyes will strain to continue to focus on the screen, and then your brain takes over and moves your head forward, craning your head forward to see the screen. This really strains the neck, upper back, and the little muscles at the base of the skull called the suboccipitals. This craning will cause headache, neck pain, and upper back pain, and can change your posture to this head forward posture permanently.


When you crane your head forward, each inch causes the muscles in the neck and upper back to hold 10 more pounds. Your head weight is about 10 pounds. When you move it forward one inch, the muscles are holding up 20 pounds, another inch and add another 10. Too much of this and the head forward position becomes part of your posture, and you are carrying around that extra 10 pound bowling ball all the time. And that is for just one inch forward. Most of the patients I see are 3” forward, meaning the muscles are carrying 40 poinds!




So, let’s review. First have a good comfortable chair that you can lean back in. The high back executive chairs are no good for working at a computer, but there are plenty of secretarial chairs ranging in price from $60 to $900 that work just fine. Point is that you don’t have to have an expensive chair.


The chair height should allow you to get your legs under the desk and your feet should be resting on something. Sit back in the chair and relax. The keyboard should be almost in your lap so your hands are fairly close to your body and your arms are hanging loosely at your sides. Your arm should be supported if you are using a mouse. An alternative is to use the mouse on your lap.


The screen should not be further away than your wrist when you are sitting back relaxed. You can cheat only a little on this, at most one inch further than your wrist, but definitely not at your finger tips.


The last thing to know about sitting at a computer is YOU CANNOT SIT THERE LONGER THAN 20 MINUTES AT A TIME! You have to give yourself some stretching and moving to keep your blood flowing and to keep muscles from fatiguing and becoming sore. It only takes less than 2 minutes every 20 minutes to accomplish this.


Remember, you are working not relaxing and you are using muscles and keeping them in the same position for long periods. They need occasional rest and every 20 minutes is just about right. You will feel much better at the end of the day by taking a 1 ½ minute break every 20 minutes. And it is easy! We call it the microbreak!



The Microbreak


Look out a window. That rests the eyes. Move the neck from side to side to gently stretch the neck muscles, and look down into your lap to stretch the back of the neck. Turn your head left and right giving yourself a good stretch. Then get out of the chair and stretch the back muscles and legs. And there are many other stretches you can do depending on your needs, like the wrists and hands, and arms. Or do big circles with your arms to stretch the shoulders. While sitting twist your torso to left then to right as far as you can go. Do whatever feels good but do something for about 1 ½ minutes, every 20 minutes.


If you have any questions, or need clarification, you can call me. Remember I see patients all day, so you may have to leave a message and I will call you back. There are also other related articles on my web site.


Happy computing!


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