Advice from a Certified Hand Therapist: Avoiding Pain While Working in Your Home Office

Advice from a Certified Hand Therapist: Avoiding Pain While Working in Your Home Office
With people transitioning to home offices, hand therapists have seen an increase in clients with arm, shoulder, and neck pain; either from musculoskeletal or nerve pain origin. People are stressed and making do with working from their laptops, tablets, and/or cell phones. Working like this may be intense and may not include the daily breaks we are accustomed to, such as interacting with coworkers in the office, stepping away from the desk for a lunch break, or walking to and from a car. To cope with unprecedented world events we are moving less and hunching over our electronics at the dining room and coffee tables more which can put stress on the upper extremity.
Here is some of the most useful advice we share with our clients:
Invest in an external keyboard and raise your laptop screen to eye level.
External keyboards can be moved from your tabletop to your lap often to give your arms a change in position. This action allows muscles to rest from sustained holding patterns in only one position. If you are having numbness in the small and ring fingers, you will want to straighten your elbows a bit when keyboarding by holding the keyboard on your lap.
A head tilted forward and downward to look at a screen may cause neck pain and headaches. This position also puts tension on the nerves and overworks the muscles in your neck, shoulder, and upper back. You can set your laptop on a stack of books to raise your laptop screen to eye level, however an external keyboard and mouse will be required to prevent poor arm posture.
Do frequent body position checks.
Are you sitting slumped on your tailbone, leaning forward? Scoot your bottom back so that you are sitting on your ischial tuberosity (aka, your sit bones) and balance your trunk over your hips. This aligns the spine and allows muscles to work more efficiently.

Are your forearms resting at an angle hanging over the edge of your desk? Pull your laptop closer to the edge of the desk and move your chair back a bit so your forearms aren’t resting on the desk at all. This relieves unnecessary pressure on the arms while typing.
Are your shoulders elevated and forward? Relax the shoulders and allow them to glide down. Raise the breastbone up a little to open the chest. Using your computer camera can aid in determining your head and shoulder posture.
Move more.
Our bodies fatigue and become stiff when we sit in static positions. Children don’t get stiff because they move! Stretch your arms out, extend the elbows, wrists, and fingers, and roll your neck and shoulders every 20-30 minutes. Stand up, jump around, dance, or do some squats! Set a timer if you lose track of time when you are working so you can remind yourself to keep moving.
Avoid “email apnea.”
When we are sitting and working intensely, we tend to take shallow, quick, incomplete breaths. This actually causes us to feel more anxious, stiff, and distracted. Take slower, deeper, more complete breaths. This is not a bigger breath. Breathe in through the nose pulling a steady stream of air all the way into your stomach and then allow the breath to relax to completely exhale.
Pace yourself.
The world may feel frantic right now. Working in a different environment and possibly taking care of children during your work day can create chaos. Set reasonable expectations for yourself and take frequent movement and hydration breaks. Be kind to yourself and do some self-care. You and your work are important, but taking care of yourself allows you to be the best you.
If you are having hand, arm, shoulder or neck pain and need help, go see your local hand surgeon and ask for a referral to a hand therapist. There is so much more to know about taking care of yourself!

Stacy Hite, PT, DPT, CHT, PYT is a member of the American Society of Hand Therapist and the American Society for Surgery of the Hand.