By Anne Thomas, PT, DPT
The American office worker spends 8 to 10 hours a day seated behind a desk.
Such a sedentary lifestyle, says Palmer physical therapist Anne Thomas, not only contributes to our country’s obesity epidemic, but it can also contribute to multiple injuries and disorders that can affect a person’s ability to work, move and live.
Some of the most common of these office worker injuries include pain in the back, neck and shoulders, carpal tunnel syndrome, bursitis, tendonitis, de Quervain’s disease and thoracic outlet syndrome. Such musculoskeletal disorders cost companies a combined $20 billion or more a year in worker’s compensation claims, medical expenses, and lost hours of productivity.
“All of these injuries are preventable, but so many office workers today are unaware of stretches and exercises they can do to combat musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs),” said Thomas, owner of Body In Balance Physical Therapy in Palmer. “You may think office work isn’t dangerous enough to cause injuries, but some of these conditions, if left unattended, can become painful if not chronic.”
Frequent sitting increases pressure on discs in the spine by 50 to as much as 300 percent (depending on posture), according to the Spine Institute of North America.
This pressure adds stress to adjoining bones, joints and muscular systems throughout the body, leading to an increase chance of pain and injury.
But being stuck in a cubicle or sitting in a desk chair throughout the work week, Thomas says, doesn’t mean you must be prone to such conditions. Stretching, for instance, can help keep the body loose and alert while helping to unload pressure from the spine, joints and muscles before and after long periods in a seated position.
“Stretching during a day in the office isn’t just to help reduce stress and strain. It can also help you maintain your energy levels during a long day,” Thomas said.
Thomas offers the following four stretches to help office workers prevent the onset of pain, disorders or injury:
1. Standing Chest Stretch:
Simply stand up straight, lift your hands up and pull your shoulders back while exhaling slowly. Hold the position for up to 30 seconds, and repeat. Since many office jobs have you slumped over a desk all day, your shoulders and neck carry a lot of stress. Doing this stretch before spending a long period typing or at regular intervals throughout the day can help keep the blood flowing.
2. Seated Spinal Twist:
Sit on your chair sideways, turned so your shoulders and back are perpendicular to the back of the chair. Sit up straight, with your feet on the ground in line with your shoulders, and place your hands on the back of the chair. Twist your body toward the chair using your arms. This pose stretches out the spine, chest and neck. Take 8 to 10 breaths, then switch sides.
3. Wrist and Fingers Stretch:
This can help combat carpal tunnel and other strains on your hands and wrists. Simply stand and place both hands on your desk – palms down and fingertips facing away from your body. To intensify the stretch, lean forward. Hold the stretch until you feel the tension release.
4. Hamstring Stretch:
Long sedentary periods can make your hamstrings tight, so occasional stretching is important. Just stand up, lean forward and place your forearms on the desk. Keep your back flat while pressing your hips toward the ceiling. You should feel a deep stretch in your hamstring muscles. If you are more flexible, omit the desk and just bend straight down toward your toes, keeping your legs straight. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds.