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Everyday Ergonomics

Have you ever experienced a sudden pain or soreness that you can't explain?  Those deep aches in the neck, shoulder, or lower back that you can't find some accident, slip, fall, or injury to explain the pain?

An accident, lift, slip or fall is easy to remember, but those only last a few seconds.  The seemingly mundane everyday moments where nothing seems to happen can actually add up to have lasting effects in our body.  To understand the stress and strain we put on our body, we first need to understand what is called Anatomically Neutral:

Generally, good standing posture, or an anatomically neutral position can be summed by a straight line drawn down from the ears, to the shoulders, down through the hips, knees, and through the arch of the foot with all in the same plane of alignment.

If only everything we did was possible from this neutral standing position, we would have a better understanding of how to be in proper alignment and avoid injury and fatigue.

Depending on our body mechanics the everyday activities we do can take us too far away from a neutral and structurally sturdy posture.  Consider a regular day:

The Car

We spend a lot more time in the car then we realize.  The position we sit in can put a lot of strain on the body.  Car seats are designed to protect us during a crash but not necessarily for good postural alignment.  Personally, I appreciate this, but here are a few tips to help access your position in the car and make some adjustments:

  • Keep the angle of your seat back more upright rather than reclined far back.  Leaning back causes us to over use our abdominal muscles and anterior neck muscles to sit up and see well.  
  • If possible, adjust the seat height upward so that the knees are lower than the hips.  We should be able to comfortably press gas and brake pedals with ankle extension (also called plantar flexion).  If we have to use our thighs or lower back to press the pedals then we're putting necessary stress on the hips and lumbar spine.
  • The seat should be adjusted forward both for ease of using the pedals, but also so that we have a slight bend in our elbows when holding the steering wheel.  This helps us not to over extend the arms and relieves stress on the rhomboids between the shoulders.

The Office

Again our seated position can put a lot of strain on our body, but also consider the position of our
computer monitor, the angle of the wrist for typing or the mouse, and even avoiding long phone calls with hand held phones.

  • Chair height should keep your knees level with your hips, your feet should be able to rest flat on the floor.
  • Forearms should be able to comfortably rest on the chair arm rest or desk, this is important not to over strain the neck muscles having to help hold shoulders up, but also most importantly helping us to maintain safe angles for our wrists.
    • To generalize, the highest risk position for our wrists to develop Carpel Tunnel Syndrome is extension combined with finger flexion.  Make sure that you're able to rest your forearms on the arm rests or desk and keep a neutral or "flat" wrist when using the keyboard and mouse.

  • Monitor height should be set so that you're able to look strait ahead and see the monitor clearly.  If we have to lean or tilt the head to see, we're putting extra load on our neck muscles and sub-occipital muscles ar the base of the back of the skull.

Now that drive time and the work day are finished, we're back home with the kids and household chores where we have more ergonomic concerns.  Remember to use proper lifting techniques using the big muscles of the legs rather than the arms and back to lift the kids, our work bag, or the groceries.

  • When picking up the kids, crouch down, meet them face to face, have a hug, and also put yourself into a better lifting position with your feet flat on the floor, knees bent, and spine strait up.  Lift with the legs!
  • Also consider which side you carry the kids on or your work bag or purse.  Switch sides and avoid the risks of over loading one side consistently.
  • Carrying groceries or other things to and from the car we all have the tendency to try to carry as much as possible.  This puts an incredible amount of load on our shoulders and we're usually only carrying things from the house to the car which is only a few feet.  Over time, this can weaken our neck, shoulders, lower back, wrists, and fingers.  Carry less at a time and keep the load close to your body.
  • With chores like washing the dishes, cleaning, or gardening, consider:
    • Try not to bend at the waist or neck over the sink, bend at the knees if you can.  
    • Cleaning or gardening anything that is below your knees, use a stool or bench to sit comfortably rather than bending at the waist, a pad to kneel on would also be a better alternative than bending from the waist.
    • Avoid twisting or tilting when working or carrying loads.  Move your feet so that the work that you're doing is directly in front of you.

German anatomist Julius Wolff observed that a bone will confirm to the forces placed upon it over time.  So consider how your everyday activities may be stressing your body and make ergonomic adjustments to keep yourself healthy and structurally sound!

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