Desk job causing you pain or discomfort? 3 ergonomic office hacks to keep your body healthy at work

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Working at a desk job? You may assume you are relatively safe from workplace injuries. It's true that illnesses and fatalities tend to be a bigger problem for those laboring in more physical fields, like construction, medicine and law enforcement. Yet, your office gig may not be as safe or healthy as you think.

Work-related musculoskeletal disorders are actually among the most frequent reasons why workers get put on restricted duty or are forced to take time off from work, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In fact, in 2013, around 33% of all work-related injury and illness cases were attributed to musculoskeletal disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome, muscle strains and injuries to the back.

The good news is, employers are increasingly trying to prevent these types of injuries by modifying workspaces, equipment and tasks. But, even if your boss makes an effort to prevent serious injury, this doesn't mean you won't go home with a backache or sore hands if you sit at a desk and type all day.

Luckily, there are some moves you can make to protect yourself. Here are three big changes you can make to improve your ergonomic experience at work — and keep your body healthy.

1. Hack your workspace 

Optimizing your desk can make a big impact on how badly your job damages your body. You'll want to make sure every part of your workspace is designed to reduce strain and promote healthy movements. The Mayo Clinic has suggestions to improve every part of your space.  

Choose the right chair: Your chair should support your spinal curve, according to the Mayo Clinic. The chair height should allow your thighs to be parallel to the floor while your feet rest flat on the floor or a foot rest. Your chair should have armrests for your arms, which are adjusted so you can relax your shoulders and keep your arms flat. If your chair is too high to put your feet flat, get a good foot rest. 

Make sure your desk is the right height: Your legs should fit comfortably under your desk without your knees bumping the bottom and you should avoid storing items under your desk and restricting movement. If your desk is too high and causes you to reach upwards, use a higher chair with a footrest. If your desk has sharp or hard edges, use a wrist pad.  

Place objects to avoid reaching: All key objects you use regularly should be easily within arms reach so you don't have to strain or twist to grab them. 

Place your computer equipment in the right positions. Your monitor should be arms-length away and the top of it should be directly below eye level. The keyboard should be right in front of the monitor, and both the mouse and keyboard should be on the same surface. Place the keyboard so you can type with your hands below your elbows, your wrists straight and your upper arms close to your body. Minimize the use of your mouse by using keyboard shortcuts and alternate which hand you use to manipulate the mouse. 

2. Invest in accessories 

Ample equipment has been specially designed to make doing a desk job easier — by reducing the stress and strain on your body. A phone rest could stop you from tilting your neck in an uncomfortable position if you're on the phone a lot at your job, for example, although a headset could be an even better solution. If you're on the phone for an average of one to two hours a day, you should definitely have a headset, according to Safety and Health.

Anti-glare monitors on your computer screen prevent eye strain; a floor mat could make moving your chair easier; an ergonomic mouse could help you avoid shoulder, neck and elbow tightness; and a document holder could spare you from twisting your neck to look up and down at paperwork.

If you really want to go all-out with ergonomics, consider a standing desk. Not everyone agrees, but "evidence suggests that the negative effects of extended sitting can't be countered by brief bouts of strenuous exercise. The answer is incorporating standing, pacing and other forms of activity into your normal day— and standing at your desk for part of it is the easiest way of doing so," according to Smithsonian.

Ask your employer nicely: You might even be able to expense the equipment or get a tax deduction if you pay out of pocket (talk to an accountant about whether you might qualify).

3. Build in 5-minute breaks

Whether or not you have the tolerance for a standing desk, it's important to stand up and move around throughout each work day: Sitting too much could lead to a shorter lifespan. Plus, some research suggests that taking 5-minute mini-breaks to walk around at the start of every hour will make you feel happier and more energetic — and less in the mood for snacking.

Also: "No matter how perfect the environment, prolonged, static postures will inhibit blood circulation and take a toll on your body," UCLA Ergonomics warns.

You should try to take a short break to stretch at least once every half hour and make it a point to change your body's position every five to 10 minutes. And UCLA recommends that you avoid eating lunch at your desk, where you're apt to keep looking at the computer and increase your chances of eye strain. 

To help stave off musculoskeletal disorders, also consider a "deskercise" routine that incorporates simple stretches you can do in a few seconds. You might even mimic same the foot and leg exercises that are recommended on long flights: like rotating and flexing your ankles and calves.

"People who sit at their computers for hours every day — they're in for serious medical problems," Dr. Sharon Hame, associate clinical professor at UCLA's department of orthopaedic surgery, told WebMD. "We're seeing more things than carpal tunnel; those pains go up the arm to the elbow and shoulder and then translate to the neck and back. It's a huge problem." 

Don't put your body at risk: Take these recommended breaks and do a few simple stretches to reduce the risk of a desk job-related injury.

Take a break if you need it to stay healthy
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Christy Rakoczy

Christy Rakoczy is a graduate of UCLA School of Law and the University of Rochester. She is a full-time writer based in Florida and Pennsylvania.

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