Why Ergonomics Aren't Enough
Here are the facts...life isn't going to meet you halfway! Just look at the picture of this welder contorting to get the job done. This is life whether it is pulling weeds in the garden or picking the low hanging fruit. Moving against the common movement patterns and positions is the true key! But lets first take a look at what the research has to say about
So what do I mean by this? Consider the typical desk job which is blamed for a host of ailments including back and neck pain. Is it the job that is the problem, or is it a lack of active management of the positions that are required for the job? When sitting it's easy to completely relax the postural muscles (the ones you use when you are standing) which allows the low back to sink into the cushion of the chair. The upper body is prone to hunch over, the shoulders pull forward to reach the desk, and the head often drops forward.
"Ergonomic" chairs can cost from several hundred to over $1000, but how much does the chair itself really help? Studies indicate that the verdict is out as to the actual effectiveness of so-called ergonomic chairs. The ability to adjust the height of the chair was one of the main benefits according to one study(1), as opposed to many of the other features. Another showed little difference between a standard office chair and ones labeled "ergonomic."(2)
How about lifting? It's not like everything can be raised to waist height, now can it? If you're like me and enjoy a nice vegetable garden, and a big one, you will need to be able to reach the ground...a lot! Be it planting, weeding, harvesting, etc. that ground just isn't coming up to meet you! If you're also like me your back gets a bit stiff after getting down to that level for a while. Same with sitting for an extended period such as when driving. Going back to the desk job mentioned above who DOESN'T feel a little stiffness in the neck and shoulders after being there for a while. What can we do about this?
The first thing is to understand that these sensations are completely normal and are not going away. It doesn't matter if you have a $2000 chair and adjustable desk or use "proper" posture and body mechanics; you will probably feel something during daily activities. The back stiffness when you first stand up after bending forward for a period of time. The burn between the shoulder blades when washing the dishes or working at a computer. Stiffness in the neck after noodling around on a phone or tablet for a while. I imagine that most have felt these sensations at one time or another. Where it becomes a real problem is when these sensations are labeled as abnormal or pathological. If people are seeking treatment from doctors, chiropractors, and physical therapists in an effort to "make it go away" the results will be hard to come by. If thousands are spent on "ergonomic" this or that (we've already concluded that we can't bring the entire world to a "safe" level), while it may be helpful it does NOT eliminate the fact that everyone needs to be active in doing their part to keep themselves feeling good. Here are the key steps:
Get and Stay Strong!
This doesn't mean being in the gym for hours on end. What it does mean is that everybody has a responsibility to be able to move themselves around easily. As an example let's look at back pain caused by lifting injuries. So often I see people that couldn't perform a simple squat if their life depended on it due to strength and mobility deficits. Adding load in the form of a box or case of water for example isn't going to make the task any easier. What ends up happening is people use movement compensations to get the job done, but this places added stress to areas such as the back which opens the door to injury. I often see the same thing in athletes with knee pain. Poor hip strength will force them to use the knees more to perform the movements of sport which can lead to overuse injuries. Same with upper body strength when it comes to lifting and carrying at or above waist level. If there is insufficient shoulder strength people will usually compensate by leaning backward such as to place a heavy item on a shelf at shoulder level or above.
Go the Other Way!
The positions and postures we get into are really quite common and were describe earlier. With sitting and bending forward it's common for the back to round a bit which over time can lead to stiffness. To prevent problems from arising all that needs to be done is a few backward bends which will balance out the movement. If you are unable stand up and bend backward all that needs to be done is to actively arch the back forward from time to time. When it comes to working at a desk or washing the dishes lifting the chest to straighten the upper back and squeezing the shoulders back will help get rid of the burn that is commonly felt between the shoulder blades. Finally pulling the head backward and over the body helps to relieve neck stiffness that is common with time spent at a computer or other workstation.
Improve Your Posture.
While maintaining "proper" posture cannot and will not eliminate every ache, sensation of stiffness, etc. that is felt during the course of daily activities; it will certainly cut it down! You'll find numerous studies that claim that posture doesn't matter and that it doesn't prevent pain and injury, but I'm here to tell you it DOES make a difference. The difference is that the measures mentioned above (move the other way) STILL need to be done, but they should not be required nearly as often. When it comes to lifting, especially when the load is heavy and or it is performed frequently, keeping the back muscles engaged and using the hips as the main means to get the hands where they need to go is of utmost importance in preventing back injuries. As mentioned earlier if the hips don't have the strength and mobility to easily move the body you are forced to increase movement demands of the low back which opens the door for problems. (Yup, barring any joint issues everyone should be able to perform the squat pictured below!)
It really isn't that difficult to keep yourself out of the offices of doctors, chiropractors, and physical therapists. It just takes a little knowledge and application to life. If you find yourself in one position for a while move in the opposite direction. Spend 20-30 minutes 2-3 times per week working on building strength and mobility. Work on improving your posture and body mechanics during everyday activities. I promise it will all pay off! If you need some help, please do not hesitate to reach our for help. We are happy to work with you or your company so that you stay off the disabled list and can enjoy life to the fullest!
van Niekerk, S. M., Louw, Q. A., & Hillier, S. (2012). The effectiveness of a chair intervention in the workplace to reduce musculoskeletal symptoms. A systematic review. BMC musculoskeletal disorders, 13, 145. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2474-13-145
Hoeben, C., & Louw, Q. (2014). Ergonomic chair intervention: Effect on chronic upper quadrant dysfunction, disability and productivity in female computer workers. South African Journal of Physiotherapy, 70(2), 11-18. doi:https://doi.org/10.4102/sajp.v70i2.32