Advice from a Hand Therapist: Workstation Ergonomics

Do you have numbness, tingling, or pain in your arms? Does it disrupt your ability to work at your desk or keep you up at night? This could be caused by how you sit at your desk during the day.  You may be putting excessive pressure on your nerves causing a nerve compression syndrome.

What is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome is compression of your median nerve as it crosses the wrist into your hand. Symptoms include pain in the palm of your hand as well as numbness or tingling in your thumb, index, and middle fingers. You may eventually experience reduced grip strength, reduced pinch strength, and clumsiness during activities (eg. buttoning or donning jewelry).

What is Cubital Tunnel Syndrome?

Cubital Tunnel Syndrome is compression of your ulnar nerve as it crosses your elbow – your “funny bone.” Symptoms include pain at the elbow as well as numbness or tingling in your ring and small fingers. Occasionally people also report pain on the small finger side of the hand. You may eventually experience reduced ability to spread your fingers apart, inability to cross your fingers, and difficulty opening a jar or holding a pen.

What can I do about my symptoms?

Many of us spend more than 8 hours a day sitting at a desk. There are a variety of chairs, desks, mats, monitors, and other equipment that provide improved comfort and functional alignment of the body. In order to protect your nerves, a few adjustments can be made to your office set-up. Aligning your body to its best mechanical position can help protect you long-term. Try the self assessment below.

  • Are your feet resting flat on the floor?
  • Are your knees bent to 90 degrees?
  • Are your hips bent to 90 degrees?
  • Does your chair offer support to allow you to sit upright with a small curve to your lower back?
  • Are your elbows bent to 90 degrees with your shoulders relaxed while using a mouse or keyboard?
  • Do your eyes look level at your computer monitor?

If you answered no to any of these questions, you might benefit from making some simple adjustments.

Common adjustments:

  • Use a box under your feet if they do not touch the floor.
  • Try using a box to elevate your monitor to avoid adjustment of your neck while typing.
  • Use a towel at your lower back to provide support for upright posture.
  • Consider use of a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse if you need to elevate your laptop screen.
  • Use a towel under your forearm to “float” your elbow and wrist.
  • Try setting timers to remind you to move at least every hour.

Ask your local hand surgeon or hand therapist for more suggestions to protect your nerves, manage your pain, and for modifications for your work station.  Also watch ASHT’s Desk Ergonomic Video.

Gwen Morris, OTD, OTR/L, CHT, CLT is a Certified Hand Therapist and a member of the American Society of Hand Therapists.