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Stiff Neck? 7 Ergonomic Upgrades Your Home Office Needs

Fend off aches and pains by investing in foot support, an upgraded keyboard or a standing desk

A businessman working at home stands at his standing desk

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En español | As millions of people worked from home this past year, the results were often stiff necks, sore wrists, bad backs and headaches from slouching and staring at small screens.

The kitchen counters, dining tables and couches where people set up their desks aren't optimal workspaces. An unhealthy home office setup can lead to problems like carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis or sciatica.

After a year of working from her Atlanta home, Jody Feldman's back was bothering her as she reached over her credenza for papers and sat in a chair without lumbar support. She reorganized at least three times to have easier access to her printer and files and reduce glare on her computer monitor, but still needs to upgrade her office chair. In the meantime, she puts an old throw pillow behind her lower back.

"The pillow as lumbar support has been a game changer,” says the 60-year-old producer and casting director for the Alliance Theatre. “It's incredible how ergonomics make your life easy and relaxing."

Now that many people will work from home indefinitely, it's time to make those work spaces more ergonomic, with a focus on comfort, efficiency and well-being.

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Evaluating your ergonomics

Take stock of your work environment to see what changes should be made to improve the setup and make it less physically stressful, suggests April Chambers, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Bioengineering.

An easy way to evaluate this is to photograph or video yourself (or have someone else do it) at your workspace from the side to see your body profile. Look for ways in which your body may be out of alignment, Chambers says. Are you slouching? Are your thighs parallel to the floor when sitting as they should be? Are your arms at the correct right angle to your body when typing?

If you're having aches and pains after hours at your desk or computer, consider looking into these ergonomic products.

1. A better chair

"You sit in that chair for eight hours, so you better make sure it's comfortable with lumbar support and adjustable seat and arms,” says Tonya Dybdahl, designer and space planning manager for Milwaukee-based National Business Furniture. “High adjustability has become really affordable,” she says, with prices ranging from $200 to $400.

Add lumbar support to an existing chair by placing a rolled-up towel or yoga mat at the small of your back. Adjust the seat height so your feet are flat on the ground and thighs parallel to the ground. Set the chair arms at a right angle.

2. Foot support

To get your legs in the correct position, you may need a footrest or put a box or stack of books under your feet to raise your legs so your thighs are at a straight angle to the floor.

3. A sit-to-stand desk

One of the hottest trends is a standing desk or sit-to-stand desk. “It's one of the most ergonomic things you can do for yourself,” Dybdahl says.

Instead of buying a new desk, you can stand at the kitchen counter or island, says Kevin Munhall, owner of Habit Disruption in Hoboken, New Jersey, who specializes in helping people with posture and ergonomics. Sitting or standing, your work surface should be at elbow height with arms at 90 degrees.

While prolonged sitting can lead to health problems like obesity and diabetes, standing too long can cause varicose veins and lower back pain. The current recommendation from experts is to alternate every 30-60 minutes between sitting and standing throughout the day.

4. A properly positioned screen

The top of your screen should be at or slightly below eye level and an arm's length away to avoid straining your eyes, neck and shoulders. If you work on a laptop, “it's difficult to check all of the ergonomic boxes because the screen is connected to the keyboard,” says Chambers, an expert in human movement and injury prevention.

To raise your laptop screen to the proper height, buy a stand or use a stack of books. For a PC, get a computer arm.

5. An ergonomic keyboard (and mouse)

Ergonomic keyboards reduce strain by placing your hands and arms in a more natural position. If you use a laptop, get an external keyboard and mouse so you can raise the screen but don't have to reach up to type. An ergonomic mouse, which is contoured to your hand, can prevent gripping too tightly.

6. A wrist pad

If you type a lot, a cushion that sits in front of the keyboard — called a wrist pad — may help prevent repetitive stress injuries. It's an easy and inexpensive fix.

7. A bigger monitor

If you squint at the computer screen or hunch over to see it better, consider getting a larger monitor to reduce eye and neck strain. If you're using a laptop, you can hook it up to a bigger screen.

You also can enlarge the type, change the font style, lower your device's brightness or use the “night” mode. Follow the 20/20/20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look away from the screen at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.

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Breaking bad habits

In addition to equipment, people's behaviors also affect work ergonomics. “There's no setup that will magically fix everything,” says Kevin Munhall, a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique, a mindfulness method to evaluate and alter body movement. “Our habits feel comfy but might not be good for us. It comes down to becoming aware of your habits and changing them."

Consider these tips:

  • Don't cross your legs. It reduces circulation and throws off hip alignment.
  • Practice good posture when sitting or standing.
  • Shift your posture often — change your sitting position or stand up frequently — to reduce strain on muscles and joints.
  • Organize your work area so items you use the most are closest to you. Declutter your space.
  • Take frequent breaks. Experts suggest taking a five-minute break every hour. Include movement as much as possible in your day.

Sheryl Jean is a contributing writer who covers aging, business, technology, travel, health and human-interest stories. A former reporter for several daily metropolitan newspapers, her work also has appeared in the Chicago Tribune and The Dallas Morning News and on the American Heart Association's website.

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