5 Ways Your Office Job May Cause You Pain

First Published: December 17, 2018. Last Update: June 9, 2023

From manual labor to tech entrepreneur, every occupation is subject to injury risk factors. This post focuses on - yes, it's possible - the risks that come with a desk job.

Ergonomic Risk Factors

It doesn’t matter what your occupation is. It will pose at least some risk to your health. Ergonomics a can help reduce that.

Ergonomics is about how you interact with the things you use to get a job or task done. 

The idea of ergonomics is to fit your work tools & furniture to you, and not the other way around. Establishing and maintaining a good fit between you and your tools and furniture is one of the best strategies for keeping muscles, joints and overall posture healthy.

Here’s what you might be up against at your office:

1. Awkward Posture or Positioning

Does being at your workspace twist you up in a bunch? Do you find that more times than not, you have to keep your posture in a weird contortion in order to see your monitor, answer the phone, maintain a sitting position or type?

A man in awkward posture staring at a spreadsheet on his computer monitor.

If so, you’re likely experiencing one of the official risk factors for a work-related injury, which is awkward posture.

Awkward posture maintained throughout the day misaligns the joints and keeps the muscles from moving. The muscles that serve the joints get into a holding pattern that, for the most part, only changes when you take a movement break. 

This stasis causes muscles to accumulate tension, which in turn, decreases joint flexibility. Not something you want to develop over the long haul!

An example of awkward positioning includes a monitor that is located off to the side or high up, requiring that you keep your neck turned or extended all day long.

In this and similar scenarios, you’ll likely set yourself up for pain, excessive wear and tear on joints, and/or joint misalignment.

2. Static Loading

Awkward positioning is related to the next risk factor, which is static loading. 

The difference between awkward positioning and static loading is that with static loading, an experience of holding is added to the mix. Think of it as holding weight without moving.

Weights may or may not be something external. Body parts count as weight. In this case, you'd be holding a body part out of alignment, which makes for a lot of muscle tension.

Excessive muscle tension from static loading potentially makes any joint misalignment you may have worse. It may set you up for an injury down the road, as well.

A regular habit of static loading may lead to chronic pain, increased joint wear and tear, and, over time, may even limit your ability to do basic things like getting up and down from a chair.

An example of static loading is when you mouse for the better part of the day with your arm fully extended out away from you (perhaps because your work tools are too far back.)

One excellent way to break up the muscle tension brought on by static loading is to take breaks throughout the day to allow muscles to relax. 

3. Repitition

Keyboard and mouse on a keyboard tray that is affixed to the desk surface.

If your job involves a lot of typing, mousing or moving your head from one side to another to interact with multiple monitors, you may be at risk for repetitive strain injury (RSI.)

RSIs arise from actions that you do over and over again, with minimal interruption, during the course of a day. In other words, your job is made up mostly of these actions, and you don't get many breaks.

The more you use a body part repeatedly and without interruption, the greater is the risk for pain, discomfort, tissue damage, muscle fatigue and more.

In fact, if an action is repeated 12 times or more in a 5 second or less period of time, your tendons may be in trouble. This is because they may not be able to fully recover from the activity, which can lead to an RSI. 

Using force along with the repeated actions increases the risk even further. For example, how hard do you strike the keys on your keyboard?

Some things you can do to prevent RSI include keeping your upper arms straight down by your side when keying, and keeping them as relaxed as possible. Also, position your mouse and keyboard close to each other and on the same plane (level.)

An inexpensive way to achieve this is to get a keyboard tray.

And work breaks give the muscles a chance to relax, which is a necessity – and not a luxury – for injury and pain free computer work overall.

4. Forceful Exertion

How much muscle do you put into mousing and keying?

Even though you may only be working with little buttons (typing) or making small movements with your mouse, you still could be at risk for a forceful exertion type injury.

In this case, the more you pound and the harder you grasp, the higher is your risk for a forceful exertion type injury in your wrist, hands or fingers.

Graphic designers often do a lot of mousing all day long. Because of this, they may be at a higher risk for a forceful exertion injury, especially if they put their stress in their hands as they work.

If this is you, try to remember to release excess hand tension periodically throughout your day. The same is true if your job requires near constant typing or data input.

5. Contact Stress

If you don’t know what to do with your forearms or wrists while typing, you may, without realizing it, have resigned yourself to resting them against the edge of the desk and/or laptop.

Man-hand at laptop keyboard, with wrist and forearm pressing into edge of laptop and desk, respectively.

This convenience may place pressure on skin, muscle, nerves, arteries and/or veins, and, of course, be the cause of discomfort.

Contact stress can affect blood flow and decrease the movement of lymph fluid. (Lymph is the body’s “trash collector” system. It is charged with removing harmful wastes from your tissues.)

Contract stress may also alter the way your nerves work in and around the pressured area, sometimes leading to carpal tunnel syndrome.

But there’s good news.

While contact stress is listed as an official ergonomic risk factor for injury, for office workers, at least, it’s usually not serious.

If you’d like to address wrist contact stress, you might try a gel pad beneath your keyboard. The thing to remember when purchasing a gel pad for the keyboard is that it should allow for an easy gliding movement of your wrists and forearms during typing.

Otherwise, you might install a keyboard tray under your desk. This effectively lowers the surface of your workstation (the area where you type, at least) and helps create an easy-to-maintain alignment of wrists, hands and fingers.

I like the keyboard try solution because not only does it reduce contact stress, it also helps you have well-aligned neck, shoulders and upper back posture at the computer.

Just How Much Injury Risk Does an Office Job Pose?

Combine any of the risk factors mentioned above and deny yourself periodic rest breaks, and you have a recipe for an computer-use related injury.

The good news is about 80% of the time, office-related injuries are preventable and manageable.

Most of the time, a combination of ideal workstation set up, movement breaks and snacks, and developing posture awareness will do the trick.

In other words, if you really want to avoid these painful problems, with a bit of effort and attention, you can.

Preventing office related injuries and pain comes down to your habits.

Once you become aware of how you routinely interact with your tools and furniture you use my mind-body techniques to release the habits that don't serve you and replace them with ones that do.