How Women Can Avoid Pain After Hours at the Computer
Have you heard about the “posture shirt?”
All of my writing friends are talking about it, because like many women (and men!) in today’s world, we spend a lot of time working on our computers, or hunched over our tablets or smartphones.
The result of all that bad posture? Neck pain, upper back pain, headaches, nerve pain, and more.
Admit it—most of us have poor posture when we’re doing these things. We don’t think about sitting up straight. Instead, we curve the shoulders, extend the neck and jut out the chin to better see the screen, or we spend hours with our heads bent over, greatly increasing pressure on the spine.
It’s not just pain we have to worry about, though. Some studies suggest we may be doing real damage to our spines by slouching over our devices all the time. Some doctors are reporting that more patients are coming into their offices with hunchback and other spinal issues because of our increasing reliance on technology.
That’s why my friends are talking about the posture shirt. It’s one of the tools we can use to counteract the damage we tend to do to ourselves while spending so much time in front of our screens.
No woman wants to look old before her time. Read on to find more ways to protect your spine, head, neck, and posture from “computer hunch.”
How Our Gadgets Are Hurting Us and Causing Spinal Deformities
We’ve all experienced that telltale muscle soreness after a long day at the computer. A quick aspirin or ibuprofen or a nice thirty minutes of yoga usually takes care of it. At least we think it does, until after a year or two we find that pain returning more often, or more severely.
The problem develops over time, as we repeatedly practice poor posture. Hunching over the computer, for example, causes the chest muscles to tighten, while the muscles in the upper back lengthen. At the same time, the shoulders pull inward and the spine is forced forward.
Gradually, as we repeat this posture day after day, the upper back muscles get weak and stretched, while the chest muscles get more tight and knotted. These two muscle groups are made to work together, so the imbalance between them throws the body off, resulting in pain in the neck, back, arms, and even lower back, hips, and legs.
In addition to this hunched posture we assume while at the computer, most of us sit (or stand) the same way when looking at our phones and tablets. Instead of raising them to eye level, we constantly look down at them, the neck curved and the shoulders hunched. Repeating this posture day after day spells disaster for the neck, spine, and back and shoulder muscles.
In 2014, researchers found that just looking down at a cell phone (or other gadget) puts the equivalent of 60 extra pounds on the head—greatly increasing pressure on the spine.
“As the head tilts forward the forces seen by the neck surges to 27 pounds at 15 degrees,” said researcher Kenneth Hansraj, a New York back surgeon, “40 pounds at 30 degrees, 49 pounds at 45 degrees and 60 pounds at 60 degrees.”
Do this for hours at a time and you can see why your vertebrae would suffer. Osteopath Robin Lansman told Daily Mail, “Over time, the back becomes less and less tolerant to being forced to stoop over a screen and the spine begins to mould to this shape.”
This type of pain related to poor posture is also affecting our young people.
A 2013 study found that nearly three quarters of primary school children and nearly two thirds of secondary school age children reported back or neck pain in the past year. The Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board commissioned the study after finding that the number of children treated for back and neck pain had doubled in just six months.
Researchers blamed the increase in pain on the hours youngsters are now spending in front of their screens, which are having far reaching effects on musculoskeletal health.
How to Reduce Your Risk of Pain and Spinal Problems
Obviously our gadgets aren’t going away, so the answer is to learn new ways to work with them so they don’t end up causing us pain or worse, permanent deformity.
How do we do that? Fortunately, there are a lot of steps we can take.
- Set Up Your Work Space
Many of us hunch even in the best of circumstances, but we can increase our odds that we’ll sit up straight by ensuring we have a good ergonomic setup where we work.
Your chair should provide ample lumbar support when you’re sitting up straight. Your hands should fit comfortably on the keyboard, at a 90-degree angle from your arms. (Is your chair high enough?) Also, make sure that your monitor is just slightly below eye level.
- Take Regular Breaks
Science has proven it over and over again—nothing substitutes for movement. If you’re a woman who gets involved in her work and doesn’t get up for an hour or more, set a timer. Optimally, get up once every thirty minutes and walk around. Roll your shoulders back and twist a few times from the waist.
Movement is key to helping to counteract the damage constant sitting and slouching can do.
- Use a Standing Desk
Study results are mixed about whether standing desks help keep you healthier, but one thing is clear—they encourage you to move more often, which is key to reducing pain.
If you invest in a standing desk, don’t plan on standing all day long. The key is to alternate between standing and sitting, which naturally helps you move more. When you’re standing up, it’s also easier to roll your shoulders and stretch your back now and then.
Don’t think you have to spend thousands to enjoy this benefit. Many writers, programmers, and others who work at computers most of the day make their own. The important thing is to get your keyboard up and your monitor slightly below eye level.
- Try a Posture Shirt
My friends swear by them. They are athletic shirts that provide just a little pull—enough to remind you to sit up straight while you’re working. Think snug, form-fitting shirts that provide support and grip to encourage correct posture.
- Bring Your Screens Closer to Eye Level
Watch how you usually use your tablet and/or smartphone. Most of us hold them too low, so that we have to curve the neck to look down at them. As mentioned above, that puts extra strain on the neck and the spine, creating problems down the road.
Try to remember to bring your gadget up. If you’re using your phone, raise it up so you’re not having to stay in a forward-head posture for an extended period of time. If you’re using your tablet, consider using a case that allows you to prop it up on a table. Or, try one of the many products out there that are made to elevate the screen, such as the LEVO Deluxe floor stand or the FLOTE floor stand or something similar.
- Exercise Regularly
Regular exercise—including both aerobic and strength training exercises—help keep your muscles strong and better toned so they can better support you while you’re sitting at the computer.
Studies have also shown that regular exercise of any kind helps prevent back pain. Try to fit in at least 30 minutes a day.
- Practice Regular Stretches
In addition to getting up and walking around, your muscles and spine will benefit from regular stretching exercises. When you do get up, try to perform at least one of these exercises, and then consider doing a series at the end of your workday.
- Shoulder blade squeeze: Imagine you’re holding a small beach ball between your shoulder blades and squeeze them together, holding for 10-15 seconds and then releasing.
- Chest stretch: Stand in a doorway. Place your forearms against the frame, with your elbows at shoulder height. Place one foot forward and gently lean into the door. You should feel the stretch in your chest. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat.
- Chin tuck: Sit straight in your chair. Keep your chin straight and parallel to the floor. Gently draw our head and chin back, as if you want to make a double chin. Be sure not to tilt your head to the side. This stretches the back of the neck. Hold for 20 seconds and repeat.
- Shoulder stretch: Stand up straight, reach both hands behind you and clasp them together at the base of your lower back. Gently push your hands toward the floor. You should feel the stretch in your shoulders and chest, and your shoulders should square off.
- Against the wall: Stand straight against a wall, feet shoulder-width apart. Press your head, buttocks, and back of your arms to the wall and hold for 20 seconds. Relax and repeat.
Final note—when you stand up, be aware of how you’re standing. Where is your weight? If it’s on your heels, you’ll be more likely to slouch. Instead, balance your weight on the balls of your feet and see how your body responds. Bring the shoulders back, and center your head between them.
Don’t be surprised if you feel more confident when standing up straight than when slouching—another hidden benefit!
“Kyphosis (Roundback) of the Spine,” American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00423.
Olga Khazan, “What Texting Does to the Spine,” The Atlantic, November 18, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/11/what-texting-does-to-the-spine/382890/.
Wendy B. Katzman, et al., “Age-Related Hyperkyphosis: It’s Causes, Consequences, and Management,” J Orthop Sports Phys Ther., June 1, 2011; 40(6):352-360, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2907357/.
“Video games, tablets, and smartphones are ‘a back injury time bomb’ for children who are increasingly sedentary, study warns,” Daily Mail, November 13, 2013, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2505046/Video-games-tablets-smartphones-injury-time-bomb-children-increasingly-sedentary-study-warns.html.
Helen Carroll, “Could your teenager’s computer habit give him a humped back?” Daily Mail, February 19, 2014, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2563265/Could-YOUR-teenagers-computer-habit-humped-back.html.