Is Your Workplace Ergonomic? Here's What to Look For - And Why It Matters

Published October 12, 2017

By Khurram Pervaiz, M.D.

We spend at least eight hours a day at our jobs – and for some of us, that means eight hours a day in the same chair, at the same desk, looking at the same computer.

Although the work may be varied and exciting, poor posture or sitting at a workstation that isn’t ergonomic can consistently put pressure on the same muscles and tendons in your upper body. And that can lead to musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain, tendonitis, rotator cuff issues, shoulder pain and neck problems. I commonly see patients who are suffering from these types of symptoms, and as part of their treatment we’ll evaluate if there is anything they can do to improve their work environment and prevent the symptoms from recurring.

Here are a few ways that you can change your work station to avoid some of these injuries, and what to expect if you suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome, one of the most common disorders related to workplace ergonomics.

You’ll want to focus on:

  • Posture: Change your body position periodically throughout the day to avoid continuously straining the same muscle groups, and be especially cognizant of any time your neck is bending forward or twisted in tasks such as reading paperwork or talking on the phone.
  • Computer position: Your monitor or laptop should be centered in front of your keyboard and chair, and it should be at eye height to prevent your neck from bending forward or a slouched posture.
  • Keyboard position: Your keyboard should be straight in front of you at approximately elbow height, so your wrists are straight when typing and held in a neutral position without being hyperextended or hyper flexed.
  • Phone use: If you are frequently on the phone, it’s key to avoid cradling it in your shoulder and neck while you type, write notes or accomplish another task. A headset is very, very helpful to protect your neck, shoulder and back in these jobs.
  • Chair support: Your chair should be comfortable, with soft, rounded edges, lumbar support for your lower back and a slightly inclined back rest to promote good posture. Your feet should be planted firmly on the ground. If that’s not comfortable, a foot rest may be helpful.
  • Task repetition: We know that repeating the same movement over and over, such as typing, may predispose you to suffering a musculoskeletal injury or strain. It helps to be conscious of your work flow and purposefully alternate tasks to give your muscles and tendons a break.
  • Take breaks: Short breaks and walks – even to the water cooler or coffee machine – help to relieve stress on the back, neck and shoulders. Keep in mind that it’s more effective to take several short breaks than one 15-minute break every two hours.

One of the most common musculoskeletal disorders I treat is carpal tunnel syndrome, which occurs when there is increased pressure on the median nerve in your wrist. Although this has a variety of causes, including illnesses, it can also be related to or aggravated by repetitive hand movements, such as typing or driving for long periods of time.

Patients frequently complain of numbness and tingling in their hands, or even pain that wakes them up at night. In more severe cases, patients will also experience muscle atrophy or weakness in their hands and might complain that it causes them to drop things.

Treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome is based on the severity of the symptoms. If your symptoms are fairly recent, we’ll start with conservative treatment. Many patients find it helpful to take over-the-counter anti-inflammatories and wear wrist braces, especially at work, to keep the wrist in a neutral position. In certain cases a cortisone injection may be used for symptom relief.

If symptoms don’t improve with brace wear, or if they continue to worsen, we might recommend a carpal tunnel release. When appropriate, the surgery may be preceded by an electromyography, or nerve conduction study, to determine the exact severity of nerve compression.

A carpal tunnel release is a standard procedure where we’ll surgically dilate the carpal tunnel to make more room for the nerve. Many surgeons – myself included – can now do this endoscopically, making an incision of only a centimeter and a half right at the wrist crease. An endoscopic approach allows patients to recover more quickly and can lessen the post-surgical pain.

This is a very common and successful procedure that is performed in an outpatient setting, with local anesthesia and sedation. If the patients have desk jobs, I’ll allow them to return to work within just a few days, and they can immediately use their hand. For patients who do manual labor or heavy lifting, I’ll restrict the amount of weight they can lift with that hand for two to four weeks, depending on their recovery.

The good news is that these treatments are straightforward and may not even require any time off work. But the best treatment is prevention, so take a look at your workplace to determine how to best care for your body while on the job.

Dr. Khurram Pervaiz is a dual fellowship trained orthopaedic surgeon in the Orthopaedic Associates of Central Maryland care center in Catonsville, Columbia and Eldersburg, Maryland. He specializes in shoulder, elbow and hand surgery and has done extensive research on shoulder replacement surgery, wrist biomechanics, limited wrist fusion, carpal tunnel syndrome and total elbow replacement. He is also a reviewer for The Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery and serves on several committees for the American Society for Surgery of the Hand. Dr. Pervaiz was fellowship trained at the Cleveland Clinic and Florida Orthopedic Institute and completed his residency at the Medical College of Virginia.