What is ergonomics, and why does it matter?
This is actually a really important topic.
The influx of patients that I’ve been seeing over the past three months has been primarily due to ergonomic issues. Before, it was people that were out driving, and it was car accidents and slips and falls, or people who were weekend warriors, and they were doing this and getting into situations where they would be in pain.
But now, activities have calmed down, or people aren’t doing as much, and you’ve had a huge shift of the population from one work setting to another. So, if you were active and busy as a teacher, or if you were on your feet moving around, now you’re stuck at home. And you’re working from your bed or your couch, God forbid, the kitchen table. And it’s not the custom chair that your Fortune 500 company provided for you when you’re at your desk – and that causes a lot of issues.
People didn’t realize it, and they don’t realize it until they come to the office. And then we ask them: When did your pain start? What changed? And it was their workspace.
What’s the cause of a lot of new conditions that we’ve been seeing? What is going on?
Ergonomics is basically it’s the study of how one works. So, this is important because every company wants to have a safe and productive work environment, to promote a highly effective workforce. And we want to have highly efficient employees. That’s the basic ingredient for any successful business is to have a highly efficient employee.
But whether you work for yourself, if you’re an entrepreneur, or you have that Fortune 500 company, or if you’re a civil servant, you’re a teacher or a firefighter or a police officer, and you have a vest on all the time, and you wear a gun belt – all of these things are ergonomic issues.
And your ergonomics plays a huge part in how your health is impacted on a daily basis. Many times, when people have issues and we’re going over their x-rays, and their actual slides, I tell them that it usually boils down to two ways that your body can be affected by the outside environment.
It’s either a macro or a micro trauma, and a macro trauma is something like a car accident, sports injury, or the slip and fall on the ice. That’s macro trauma – you did something real quick, and you notice it right away. Micro trauma is different. Micro trauma happens on a daily basis, but because you’re doing it all the time, you don’t realize that it’s causing micro trauma to the body until you’re doing it for two to three weeks or months or years, and then after a while, it’s just one more thing that happens. And your body just says, “I give up,” and gives you pain signals. You start getting sciatica, or you start getting numbness and tingling down the arm.
A lot of times, part of our job here at the office is educating people on the micro trauma that they don’t even realize that they’re causing. That’s what ergonomics is all about.
What are the signs and symptoms that people need to pay attention to while working?
“It’s really clear, when you fall off the ladder, you need to seek attention. But these kinds of micro traumas that are happening constantly – do you know what the signs are?”
As a chiropractor, I’m used to people coming in, and when I ask them, “How long has this been going on?” – it’s very rare that I get the past week or two, it’s usually past several months, or even several years.
It amazes me the number of people across the board – and it doesn’t matter where you’re from or if you’re male or female – how many people live with pain on a daily basis. And how many people accept pain as normal. Or even headaches as normal. Patients will come in because the back pain finally got so bad that they just couldn’t take it anymore, and it’s stopping their normal routine. So, they want you to adjust their back pain, but I start having a conversation. And I might ask: Do you get headaches? How often do you get headaches? Every day?
I get that all the time – that’s something that we’ve just accepted as normal. So, the first thing I want people to start paying attention to is pain. It sounds simple. But there are people, at least 60 to 70% of the people watching this interview, that are dealing with some level of pain. My goal is to tell you to stop ignoring it. Pay attention to it. What is it doing?
If you’re driving a car, and you have a light flashing saying that you need oil, or you need gas, you can keep driving, it’s just a warning. So, that’s what pain is, and so many times people just keep on going until the tank hits “E” until the gas runs out. And then it’s an emergency status.
And that is what brings a lot more strain to the healthcare system. Because there’s a lot of people ignoring pain until it’s too late. Unfortunately, for some people it’s that first sign of pain that might be the last one. It might be a heart attack. It might be colon cancer or something like that. So, I want to encourage everybody out there to start paying attention to pain – especially if the pain is showing up while you’re working.
If it’s that neck pain because you’re using your laptop when you’re working from home, or if you’re a driver – driving a truck – or if your police officer in your car and you’ve got the gun belt on, pay attention to the pain that you’re feeling every time you’re sitting down, and you starting to get that shooting pain or sharp pain or even uneasiness. That’s something that you just have to pay attention to.
The second thing to pay attention to is overuse. With overuse that’s basically the repetitive motion. How many times do you even realize that you’re looking off to the left, and you’re looking off to the right? Or somebody is using the mouse, and their carpal tunnel is starting to act up. How many times do you have to pick up a box? Are you bending to lift something?
The last thing, and this one is really key, especially as we’re trying to come out of the pandemic, but I really want people to pay attention to fatigue, to stress, and to burnout. Mental health is something that’s really important. People have been going through a lot, their families have been going through a lot – and that can spill over into the workplace in one way or another. Use your weekends or your days off, or your time off to rest and reset.
“Have you been working on your mental health during this time? Do you take the time to disconnect? To spend time doing some things that you enjoy outside of your work? Don’t dismiss the importance of doing these things.”
What are the top 5 things people should do to avoid having increased pain at work?
The first thing I would say is positioning. Remember positioning. I want everybody to do a self-assessment of the position that they’re in the longest while they’re at work. A good way to do this is to have someone come in while you’re working and take a picture while you’re at work.
Make sure that you’re starting with the correct posture when you’re sitting or standing. In ergonomics, they call that the power zone. The power zone is your shoulders are relaxed, your elbows are close to your body, and your hands just relax. If you want to come to the keyboard, maybe you have armrests, you’re resting your elbows, and you’re just wrapping them up on the keyboard. You’ve got your ears over your shoulders, and your shoulders are over your pelvis. So, pay attention to your positioning.
Number two is to pay attention to frequency – that’s how many times you’re doing the same motion. And try to make sure that you can balance out your frequency. In terms of this, if you’re always using the right arm, you can always just switch. You can reconfigure your keyboard so that you’re not always using the same hand and the same mouse all the time, you can switch it to the left hand. If you’re working and doing different things, there are so many things you can do to switch up on the frequency of how you do things, and this can bring more balance to the workspace.
The third is proper support. You want to make sure that you have the right lumbar support if your neck is tired. And you want to make sure that your chair comes up to at least your upper shoulders. Some people, if they’re standing or driving, they might need a lumbar support or a back brace or something to support. Think about different things. Your insurance company or the company that you work for might be able to cover it. If you’re an entrepreneur, talk to your accountant. But these are things that you need to be a highly efficient worker.
“If your employees are working from home, have that conversation, share this video with them, so that they understand how to better create their workspace so that they can feel good in the space.”
Number four is to be versatile. So many people are getting those standing desks, but what happens is that people will forget to switch up their workspace. I just went over this with a patient the other day. You should be able to switch up between three to four different positions while you’re at work. It might be sitting up straight. The second one may be leaning forward. The third one could be leaning back a little bit while you’re working. The fourth one, if you have that versatile sit-to-stand desk, allows you to stand up and do something like that.
Number five should be self-care. I would say get treatment if the problem is really severe. See your primary care doctor, see a good chiropractor, if you need one. Reach out to me online, and I’ll see if I can find you somebody that you can talk to who is a good physical therapist, massage therapist, etc. Use your benefits to your advantage.
But don’t just ignore number five. Self-care can consist of exercising, proper stretching. And of course, you need to help with that. Get the care that you need. If your body is giving you those warning signs, pay attention to them, and make sure that you address them properly in the right time. You don’t want the signs to spiral out of control and become something that is very hard to address, or God forbid, you need further intervention that you couldn’t handle down the road.
“I love the really practical steps that we can take to bring more awareness to how our body is working while we’re working. And by doing these things, we help ourselves to be more productive and feel good.”
3 Action Steps
1. Pay attention to ergonomics and how it may be impacting your health.
2. Take note of aches and pains, overuse syndrome, and your mental health that all affect your health.
3. In order to decrease pain, you need to do five things: pay attention to positioning and frequency, have proper support, be versatile, and practice self-care.
Connect with Dr. Roch Herold on LinkedIn and find out more about the Maryland Spine Institute.
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