The hazards of the office chair

 In Ergonomics

This article was featured in the fall 2013 Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) Ottawa Chapter magazine: ‘Up-Date Magazine’.

Physiotherapists often get asked how people can prevent injuries. The easiest way to do so is by minimizing repetitive strain and being able to do things in a good, neutral posture. With almost 70% of Canadian adults spending their waking hours (approximately 10 hours/day) sitting, one of the biggest contributors of musculoskeletal injuries is the office chair.

Sitting in office

Sitting in office

From biomechanical studies, there is higher pressure on the disks in our back when we are sitting compared to when we are standing. Add in some slumping to the mix and the pressure in the disks goes up even more. With increased stress on the spine, the disks start to slide backwards towards the spinal nerve roots. Once this starts happening, all it could take is a slight rotation at the same time as we lift something and that disk can tear, becoming a herniated disk. The herniated disk can then compress the spinal nerve root causing back pain or even sciatica, which can send pain or numbness/tingling down the legs. Office chairs can also contribute to circulatory issues or nerve compression in the legs if the chair isn’t properly adjusted. There is also the possibility of neck, shoulder and upper back pain if the arm rests aren’t properly adjusted or sitting posture isn’t adequate, such as not using the back rest.

Increased pressure on the spine, pushing the contents of the disc backwards towards nerve roots.

Increased pressure on the spine, pushing the contents of the disc backwards towards nerve roots.

Having an ergonomic assessment of your workstation is a great way to start minimizing the risk of injury. A proper chair for your height should be the center piece of any plan of action. There are many different chair heights, but did you know that the average office chair is made for the 5-foot 10-inches, 180 pound man. The odd thing is, a significant number of people who sit in office chairs are women. A great number of women are not 5-foot 10-inches or 180 pounds and frankly speaking, a lot of men don’t fit those measurements either. Clearly, most office chairs are therefore either too short or too high. With a chair height not being appropriate, the depth of the seat will also not be adequate, causing us not to use the back rest or could even lead to compression at the back of the legs. The seat could also be too wide or too narrow, causing additional strain on our shoulders and upper back. Another great idea is to get up and move or stretch throughout the day. Getting up allows us to change positions and allows for improved blood circulation in the body. Being in any position too long can increase muscle tension or cause muscle strains.

Having an ergonomic assessment allows your workstation to be modified to you, not vice versa.

Having an ergonomic assessment allows your workstation to be modified to you, not vice versa.

Office chairs that are well adapted can go a long way in preventing injuries for office workers. Chairs are expensive items, but they should rather be seen as a valuable investment. Having productive and happy employees can go a long way to the success of a workplace, not to mention some cost savings in sick days and lost work.

Have you ever experienced pain or suffered an injury because of an office chair? On the flip side, have you ever been in a chair that you just felt well supported in or very comfortable?

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