How to stay injury-free at work

Proper posture, frequent breaks, stretching all help reduce the risk of pain and injury

Whether you have a desk job or are on your feet all day, you may feel the pain of repetitive stress injuries.

Employees who sit at computers for prolonged periods of time are at especially high risk.  Ditto for those with high-repetition or high-force jobs, such as athletes, data entry processors, manufacturers, assembly workers, musicians and retailers. 

The key to staying injury-free — in any profession — is to maintain proper posture, take frequent breaks, stretch regularly and avoid stress (and the inevitable tense body positions that it causes).  The following tips will help you prevent pain and injuries at work:

 • Maintain good posture: Whether you spend hours at a desk, in a car or on your feet, maintain proper posture with your back straight. Avoid slumping or hunching over. Unnatural alignment of the body — especially for prolonged periods — can cause head, shoulder, neck and back pain.

 • Check your position: If you're mostly deskbound, keep your body relaxed, fingers on the keyboard, feet flat on the floor.  Your elbows should be directly below your shoulders and bent to 90 degrees. Keep your shoulders down and your wrists neutral. Your monitor should be about arm's length away, straight ahead of you, not off to the side.

 • Wear comfortable shoes: If you spend a lot of time on your feet, it's essential to wear proper footwear with good cushioning.  Avoid wearing high-heeled shoes, which can shift your body alignment and cause pain in your back, legs and even your upper body. 

 • Lift correctly: Always lift with your legs — not your back — and keep objects close to your body when carrying them. If you need to shift or twist, move your feet accordingly, rather than twisting your back. If you need to lift or carry heavy items, get help or use proper tools, such as a wheelbarrow or cart.

 • Stretch: This is smart advice whether you spend hours on the computer, on the road or on your feet.  Stretching gives your body a much-needed break from the repetitive motions of typing, driving, standing, or whatever you're doing for long periods of time.  Stretch all of your muscles – your back, arms, legs – at least several times each day.

 • Reduce your stress: While deadline pressure or an important sales pitch can certainly be nerve-wracking, reducing stress is beneficial for both the body and the mind.  Stress can impact how we posture our bodies.

For instance, when stressed, we may strike the keys on our keyboard with more force, grip our pencil harder and tense our shoulders.  It's very common to hold our muscles tight — and even to breathe less deeply — when we're anxious.  These bad habits can throw our bodies out of alignment, leading to prolonged, irreversible postural deficits, as well as headaches and other physical problems. Pause throughout the day, breathe deeply and properly realign your posture. 

 • Know that age matters: Age plays a role in work-related injuries and pain.  A 50-year-old employee may feel more pain than his 22-year-old colleague, simply because of body mechanics.  As we get older, our muscles and tendons aren't as pliable as they were when we were younger. Our muscles take longer to warm up and cool down.  And the stress points at which muscles get injured change as we age.

Think of your body like an older model car — it may need a bit more maintenance to run, but with proper tune-ups, it can still go a long distance. 

 • Keep moving: Sitting or standing for prolonged periods can lead to stiff muscles, so regular movement is very important.  As muscles tire, you're more likely to slouch, putting extra pressure on the back and neck.  Get up and move often, and frequently change your position throughout the day. This could be as simple as getting up to bring a document to your colleague, rather than emailing it to her, allowing you to get away from your desk — even for a few minutes.

 • Exercise regularly: Regular physical activity boasts a variety of significant benefits, such as improving your posture, strength and flexibility.   Exercise most days — a combination of cardio, strength training and stretching  — to improve your endurance, strength, flexibility, even your posture. Working out is also a healthy, effective way to reduce stress, so you'll feel much better, mentally and physically.

Michael Carrier, who holds a doctorate in physical therapy, is on the staff at Portsmouth-based Sport & Spine Physical Therapy. He can be reached at 603-431-9700.

Categories: Workplace Advice