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Straight talk about workplace posture

Poor posture during working hours is a major factor in workplace associated injuries and health problems.

28 SEPTEMBER 2010

Perhaps you are one of the millions of people who spend hours 'glued' to a computer screen, or maybe your job involves repetitive actions. If that's the case, the chances are you already know you need to watch your posture at work or you'll suffer. Orthopaedic surgeons and chiropractors warn us of the consequences of poor posture and tell us that workplace habits play a major part in musculoskeletal injuries.

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Experts in the field warn that the risk of injury is increased by bad postural habits, combined with the poor ergonomic conditions with which workers are frequently faced when their jobs involve operating machinery and tools. Since most of us work an eight hour day, that's a lot of time for injuries to happen. And, of course, once you start to suffer posture problems, there is likely to be a knock-on effect as you adopt an awkward posture to relieve pain, only to cause problems elsewhere.

Among the most common problems are neck pain, either muscular or degenerative (cervical pain), tendinitis of the shoulder, elbow or wrist, back pain (lumbago and sciatica), and nerve compression in the hand (carpal tunnel syndrome) or elbow (ulnar nerve). Unfortunately, these problems are becoming increasingly common due to pressure of work and because, due to lack of time, we don't take enough exercise. Lack of exercise means that our bodies are not in tip-top condition and so aren't at their best to cope with the daily demands we put upon them. Added to which we need to take into account individual circumstances including age, weight, physique, health history and lifestyle habits such as diet, alcohol and smoking.

At work, we all tend to spend hours in one position, whether it's in the office or in heavy manual jobs (labouring, using jackhammers, heavy tools etc.) and if our posture is bad, the length of time we force our bodies to put up with it can only make matters worse. We are careless about how we use the keyboard and mouse, and of how we sit or stand in relation to whatever machinery or equipment we use. This means that in recent years far more people are consulting specialists due to this type of injury. The lower back region, neck, shoulders and arms are the most susceptible areas.

It's vitally important, then, to maintain healthy posture and correct ergonomics during work hours. If you're sitting for hours at a computer desk, for example, it's advisable to sit up straight – although not in a forced position – with your back flat against the chair back, which should support the lumbar area. Your feet should be flat on the ground, though you may need to use a foot rest to lift your legs so your knees bend at around 90º, which relieves stress on certain muscles. Don't forget to check whether your computer monitor is at the right height and distance for you – not for the IT guy who set it up – and that a wrist support cushion may reduce fatigue from using your mouse.

Finally, one of the main problems is the sheer length of time we spend in a single position: try and incorporate some changes in posture and movement, whether it's stretching, or simply walking across to talk to a colleague on the other side of the office rather than sending an email.

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