05 May 2015

How a desk job puts stress on your body

You might be surprised to know that the way you sit at your desk may be the cause of some of your aches and pains. Here's what you need to know.


Constant headaches, shoulder pain, or knee pain might be a result of sitting at your desk incorrectly or not having the necessary equipment.

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Straining certain body parts will result in pain or discomfort in the following areas:


You will experience the following discomfort when you've strained your neck:

1. Neck (facet) joint problems/pain

Adopting a poking chin posture (as a result of slouching), causes compression of the neck joints, this can cause local pain and referred pain into the head or shoulders

2.  Headaches

Again, a poking chin causes strain on the upper neck joints.  This can result in cervicogenic headaches that can be felt at the base of the skull, on top of the head or around the temporal area to the eye.


You will experience the following discomfort when you've strained your shoulders:  

1. Muscle spasms and trigger points

Upper shoulder muscles: When slouching we tend to hunch our shoulders and this puts strain on the upper fibres of trapezius muscles and the levator scapulae muscles.  If you are sitting too low for your desk, elevating your shoulders to reach the keyboard causes tension. The muscles then tend to form trigger points (knots) which can be felt on the upper shoulder muscles and into the neck, causing pain and discomfort.

Rhomboid Muscles: The rhomboids run from the shoulder blades to the spine and often develop trigger points (knots) when they are put on a prolonged stretch with slouching.

2.  Rotator cuff syndrome

Our shoulders adopt a protracted position (forward rotated) when working at a computer.  This prolonged position puts strain on the rotator cuff complex (the tendons on the top of the shoulder) and can cause a tendonitis (inflammation of the tendon).  This can cause pain around the shoulder and affect sleep at night when lying on the affected side.

3.  Front (anterior) shoulder pain

This is often caused by AC-joint dysfunction. The AC joint forms the top of the shoulder and can often be very tender to touch if problematic. AC joint dysfunction can be related to poor postures, i.e. slouching and rolling the shoulders forward.


1. Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis)

This can develop from repetitive typing and poor mouse positioning. If your wrists are extended and not in the neutral position, strain is placed on the elbow tendons.  Inflammation can then develop in these tendons and cause significant pain.

Wrists and hands:                            

1. Repetitive strain injury                            

This is caused by doing one activity repetitively, like typing.  It often develops when poor postures are adopted by the wrists and hands when typing, i.e. the wrists are not kept neutral. It is diagnosed as tendonitis or tenosynovitis.  Pain can be felt in the wrists, hands and/ or fingers.  At its worst, it can also cause numbness.

Thoracic Spine (upper back)

1. Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

The thoracic outlet is a hollow that lies just above your first rib and behind your collarbone (clavicle). There are also muscles that surround the thoracic outlet. The brachial plexus (a group of nerves)  pass from your neck to your arm  through the thoracic outlet. There is also an artery and vein that pass through the thoracic outlet. 

Symptoms of Thoracic outlet syndrome include numbness, weakness and pain in the arm.  Pins and needles and a sense of cold may also be felt in the arm and hand. Thoracic outlet syndrome is often caused by and extra rib, called a cervical rib.  If you have a cervical rib and you adopt a poor posture at work the cervical rib can cause compression on the thoracic outlet and cause painful symptoms.

2. Thoracic Spine stiffness and kyphosis

Slouching results in a round curve of the spine – this is called a kyphosis.  Prolonged periods of sitting slouched can cause the thoracic spine to become stiff in a kyphotic position.  This can then make it difficult to sit up straight as your body has lost the range of movement of thoracic extension.

Lumbar Spine (lower back):       

1. Disc related problems

Prolonged sitting puts a lot of strain on the lower back, by increasing compression forces through the discs.  These compression forces are increased further when sitting slouched.  This can lead to a disc injury, which can cause severe lower back and leg pain.

2.  Muscle spasms

Often people who spend hours at their desks have very weak core muscles.  This can result in certain muscles having to do all the work to stabilize the spine.  Ideally, the lumbar spine (lower back) should be stabilized by the abdominal muscles (the core) and the back muscles.  When the core is weak, the back muscles do all the stabilizing work.  This can lead to spasms and pain in those muscles.  Often the spasm is debilitating and requires time off work.

3.  Tight hamstring muscles

This is odd to add to the lower back section, but the hamstrings affect the lower back significantly. The hamstrings originate from the sitting bones and attach to the back of the knees.  Prolonged sitting shortens the hamstring muscles which then causes a pull on the pelvis .  A backward tilt of the pelvis encourages slouching, and slouching can cause lower back pain.  So, tight hamstrings play a role in the cause of lower back pain with prolonged sitting.


1.  Front (anterior) knee pain

Knee pain that comes on after sitting for a period of time is termed anterior knee pain.  It can be due to overuse of the knee and pathology in the knee joint.  But, if there is no pathology, then the pain is caused by weak knee stabilising muscles (VMO’s). The VMO’s are the ‘core’ muscles of the knees and they weaken with inactivity – as caused by prolonged sitting.

As you can see, the body is not designed to sit all day, so make sure you are sitting in a comfortable chair with good lumbar support. Try incorporate movement into your work day and stretch those shortened tight muscles (link to stretches)

Read more:

Sitting too much shortens your life

No more slouching and slumping

Desk job bad for your health

Office etiquette: eating at your desk

Sources: Ergotherapy Solutions


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