5 Simple Tweaks for a Pain-Free, Ergonomic Desk

How you arrange your desk can make sitting less painful.

Is your desk job a pain in the neck? Or the back? Or maybe the wrist? The dangers of sitting all day have been making headlines for the past few years. But long before sitting actually kills us, it can make our bodies hurt — from head to toe.

Luckily, there are some simple changes you can make to your workstation to help you hurt less while you work. These can be especially important if you work from home, where you may have cobbled together a work area with some unused counter space and a leftover chair.

Here are five common areas of pain and tweaks you can make to your workstation to find relief.

If you have to stare at a screen all day, give your eyes a break from time to time.

How you arrange your desk can make sitting less painful.

1. Eliminate Eye Pain

No surprise here: Staring at a screen for hours on end isn’t easy on the eyes. According to the American Optometric Association (AOA), computer vision syndrome, or digital eye strain, arises from spending extended time staring at a screen and can lead to eye strain, headaches, blurred vision, dry eyes and neck and shoulder pain.

Potential Causes: screen brightness, screen location, screen glare, eye fatigue, uncorrected vision problems

How to Fix It

1. Check Your Lighting. “Decrease overhead light and supplement with task lighting to reduce glare,” says Rachel D’Epagnier, a consultant and certified ergonomist at Humantech. “Additionally, ensure the monitor is set 90 degrees to any outside windows to minimize glare and added strain.”

2. Try a Filter. A simple colored overlay or glare-reducing cover on you screen can provide relief to your eyes and make reading on a computer much easier. Or you can bring the filter to your eyewear with EyeBuyDirect's EyeZen digital screen protection glasses.

3. Stretch It Out. “The distance between the screen and your face tenses the ciliary muscles within the eyes,” explains Katy Bowman, a biomechanist and creator of the “Daily Movement Multivitamin” DVD. “To relax them, you need to look farther away.” Use the AOA’s 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break to view something 20 feet away.

Simple posture tweaks can save your shoulders.

How you arrange your desk can make sitting less painful.

2. Stop Shoulder and Elbow Pain

Tightness in your shoulder or a twinge of pain in your elbow? “When a person’s back becomes rounded, the shoulder blades roll forward, causing the shoulder joint to become stuck,” says Erik Korzen, a chiropractic physician and educator. “[This] leads to the lengthening of certain muscles and shortening of other muscles. [And] this muscular imbalance will eventually lead to abnormal joint position and lack of range of motion.”

Potential Causes: poor arm support, incorrect arm position, repetitive-use strain, keyboard is too high or too low, chair is too low

How to Fix It

1. Check Your Posture. Help keep your shoulders relaxed by choosing a chair with adequate back support and adjustable height and arm rests. “Ensure the arm rests and keyboard are placed at appropriate heights so that the shoulders are not shrugged while keying and the arms are not extended,” says D’Epagnier. You may need to place the keyboard on a tray or adjust the height of the chair.

2. Get the Right Angle. “Repetitive strain of the shoulder or elbow is usually related to poor mouse or keyboard placement,” says Korzen. To ensure that your keyboard isn’t too close or too far away, too high or too low, adjust your chair height, arm rests and keyboard position to ensure your elbows are at a 90-degree angle, says D’Epagnier.

3. Stretch It Out. Counteract shoulder tightness with an easy stretch you can do at your desk: the seated scapular retraction with external rotation, says Korzen. To do it, squeeze your shoulder blades together and draw them downward, holding and releasing 15 times.

Do your neck a favor and don't cradle the phone between your head and shoulder.

How you arrange your desk can make sitting less painful.

3. Negate Neck Pain

Is working all day giving you a literal pain in the neck? Try these simple fixes to reduce neck discomfort.

Potential Causes: poorly positioned screen, cradling a phone too long, documents located too far away

How to Fix It

1. Adjust Your Screen Height. Most people find it more comfortable to view a computer screen when the eyes are looking slightly downward. According to the AOA, the computer screen should be 15 to 20 degrees below eye level (about four or five inches) as measured from the center of the screen and at least an arm’s length away from your eyes.

2. Switch to a Headset. If you regularly are on the phone or have long conference calls from time to time, avoid “phone neck” by switching to a headset or using speakerphone, says D’Epagnier.

3. Improve Your Typing Skills. Are you a two-finger, hunt-and-peck typer? Staring down at the keyboard while you type could be causing you neck pain. Improving your touch-typing skills will allow you to look at the screen instead of down at the keyboard.

4. Stretch It Out. Give your neck a break by adjusting your head position throughout the day, suggests Bowman. “Every 20 to 30 minutes, stretch the muscles in your neck by looking over your shoulder to the right and then left, down and then up.” She also suggests sliding your head back to (think of giving yourself a double chin) to stack your ears over your shoulders.

Carpal tunnel is real (and really not fun).

How you arrange your desk can make sitting less painful.

4. Wring Out Wrist Pain

If you spend most of your day on a computer, your wrists are easy targets for aches and pains. If the ache moves to numbness or tingling in your palm, wrist, thumb or fingers, you may be suffering from carpel tunnel and require additional treatment.

Potential Causes: incorrect keyboard and/or mouse placement, repetitive-use strain, keying without breaks, frequent mouse use

How to Fix It

1. Find a Neutral Wrist Position. The goal is a “Goldilocks” wrist — not arched too high, not bent too low, but just right in a neutral position. How you sit will impact this neutral wrist position, so make sure you have proper sitting position first.

2. Skip the Wrist Rests. Memory foam or gel-filled wrist rests may seem like a good idea, but ergonomic experts recommend skipping them. Resting wrists on a pad or the desk surface while typing can reduce blood flow to the hand or put unnecessary pressure on the wrist nerves, says D’Epagnier.

3. Try a Different Keyboard or Mouse. If repositioning your keyboard or mouse hasn’t helped, you may want to try another one. If you use a laptop, consider buying a separate keyboard that will allow you to reposition as needed. Try switching to a detached trackpad, rollerball or ergonomic mouse to find what feels best. While some people may find a specialty ergonomic keyboard beneficial, they can be expensive, only work for touch-typers and don’t guarantee relief.

4. Stretch It Out. Give your wrists a break by periodically rotating them in circles, shaking them out or pressing them against each other in a prayer position, says Vivian Eisenstadt, an orthopedic and sports physical therapist and owner of Vivie Therapy.

Get up and move around to prevent back pain.

How you arrange your desk can make sitting less painful.

5. Beat Lower-Back Pain

Back pain is one of the most common complaints from sitting too long. You can tweak how you sit to try to alleviate some of the pain, but the real problem is the sitting itself, says Bowman. “Sitting poorly is only a portion of the problem, it’s the high frequency of sitting (and not moving) that’s the main culprit!”

Potential Causes: slouching, lack of lumbar support, leaning forward toward the computer screen, sitting for too long

How to Fix It:

1. Look for Lumbar Support. Choosing a chair with adequate lumbar support is key. If buying a special ergonomic chair is not an option, you can improve your current chair by creating a makeshift lumbar support with a rolled up towel behind your back or an affordable seat insert. These can help to improve your spinal alignment and weight distribution.

2. Check Your Angles. The ideal work position should have lots of right angles. “Make sure the chair is the correct height so that the hips, knees and ankles are all positioned at 90 degrees or a slightly open angle,” says D’Epagnier.

3. Change It Up. When you do have to sit, try varying your position to alleviate pressure build-up in certain areas. “Shift your position regularly, by crossing one leg over the other or sitting cross-legged in your chair or create a dynamic workstation where you can stand sometimes or take calls on your feet,” says Bowman.

4. Stretch It Out. In addition to taking frequent breaks from sitting, Eisenstadt recommends doing deliberate low-back stretches, such as rolling the upper body down and up, side bends or gentle twists to release low-back pressure.

If possible, alternate between a seated and standing desk.

How you arrange your desk can make sitting less painful.