Combating Desk Work Injuries

Injuries at work are common (3.7 million cases in 2008), particularly in occupations that require physical labor. But what about the white-collar folks? The desk jockeys sitting in front of their computer; the salesman driving in the car from client to client; the endless work traveler. Do these workers miss days due to occupational hazards? After all, does anyone really get hurt while sitting at a desk? Shouldn’t you have to lift something or be performing back-breaking exercises all day long to even have a chance at getting injured while on the job? It will come as a surprise to most, but sitting is actually one of the most dangerous positions to be in as it is the root cause of a multitude of work injuries.

Before you stand up and refrain from ever sitting again, understand that we were not designed to sit for extended periods of time. The hips flex and the knees bend to allow us to sit, but the supporting musculature gets stressed to the point where it works against us, causing back stiffness, pain, and the potential for debilitating back injuries. Back pain however, while more easily to locate and perhaps comprehend, is not the only source of work absenteeism due to injury.  Repetitive motion injuries are the other biggest cause of pain and represent the largest expense for companies in the workers compensation arena.

Repetitive motion injuries are just as the name implies — the result of overuse and generally occur from the shoulder down. According to the National Occupation Research Agenda for Musculoskeletal Disorders, the most frequently reported upper-extremity musculoskeletal disorders affect the hand and wrist region, with the most common being carpal tunnel syndrome. Carpal tunnel syndrome is generally characterized by numbness in the thumb, index and middle fingers. Aside from the pain and numbness associated with carpal tunnel syndrome, pain is sometimes felt where the thumb meets the wrist and is caused by a tendinitis of the muscles that pull the thumb back (as if you were hitchhiking). People who type tensely are prone to developing this tendinitis as they hold their thumbs over the keyboard with tension. Pain at the base of the thumb can also be caused by arthritis in the joint where the long palm bone meets one of the tiny wrist bones of the thumb. Lateral epicondylitis, or tennis elbow, has also been known to rear its painful head from hours and hours of computer mouse usage. And even if you have been able to avoid repetitive motion injuries (RMIs), there’s still a really good chance you may or may have suffered from thoracic outlet syndrome.

If you are working on computers or at a desk, chances are you are developing poor posture habits. We tend to round our shoulders forward and crane our head forward. These poor posture habits will gradually tighten the chest muscles and weaken the back muscles. This chronic change in posture leads to what is called thoracic outlet syndrome. Thoracic outlet syndrome is characterized by tendinitis in the neck and shoulders; compression of the nerves effecting internal organs such as the lungs; neck pain; migraines; shoulder pain; and a sense of tiredness or heaviness in either or both arms. Like an injury report the day after a football game, the list could go on. The good news is that most if not all of the aforementioned conditions are preventable and treatable.  Here are some quick and easy tips to keep you in play, or work:


Posture correction — It’s amazing the results, but simply being more aware of your posture (head up, shoulders back, chest forward) will go a long way to preventing a lot of potential work related injuries.

Protect your wrist — Maintain a neutral wrist position; the wrist should be flat in relationship to the forearm; it should not be bent forward or back.

Office ergonomics — Try a negative tilt of the keyboard where the row of keys closest to you is slightly higher than the row farthest away and position keyboard so that the elbows are at a 90° angle with the shoulders.

Get up and move — Every 20 minutes, just stand up and walk around; stand up when you have to answer the phone


Stretching to ease tightness in the neck muscles is very important. It is also essential to strengthen the muscles that hold the head over the shoulders. Here are four that you can try; 10 repetitions of each exercise should be done twice daily:

Corner Stretch — Stand in a corner (about 1 foot from the corner) with your hands at shoulder height, one on each wall. Lean into the corner until you feel a gentle stretch across your chest. Hold for five seconds.

Neck Stretch — Put your left hand on your head, and your right hand behind your back. Pull your head toward your left shoulder until you feel a gentle stretch on the right side of your neck. Hold for 5 seconds. Switch hand positions and repeat the exercise in the opposite direction.

Shoulder Rolls — Shrug your shoulders up, back, and then down in a circular motion.

Neck Retraction — Pull your head straight back, keeping your jaw level. Hold for five seconds.

Of course, any physical remedy could not be complete without adding some exercises, preferably away from your desk and with lots of movement. While exercise is certainly just as good a prevention tactic, it won’t hurt to take care of the matters at hand. Be sure to include resistance training to support and strengthen the skeleton and perhaps some yoga to help lengthen and stretch tight postural muscles.