Ergo? What? My Aching Back


The NCBA Professional Vitality Committee creates sourced articles centered on reducing inherent stress and enhancing vitality in the lives of legal professionals and offers those resources as a benefit for members of the North Carolina Bar Association.

By Theresa Joan Rosenberg

We lawyers are terrific listeners. But . . . do we listen to our bodies?

Many of us go into our respective offices – whether it’s in a spiffy office building, or, now, since last year’s initial COVID-19 “shutdown” – at the kitchen table, in a niche adjacent to a stairway, or the basement. Most of us log in to a computer and move forward with tasks of the day. How do you feel in your current workplace?

In 2021, a freelancing marketplace reported that about one-fourth of the American workforce will be remote. Two of five American respondents to a survey about working remotely since COVID-19 reported new or increased pain in back, shoulder and wrists.[ii] A digital health company found almost half of their surveyed workers had back and joint pain; almost three-quarters said the pain was new or worse.[iii]

As we imagine our present workplace and project into the future – whether in shared space in our homes or an office space – we ought to do better: to provide ourselves more than a “substandard” workplace.

Are we accommodating to our workplace, or is the workplace accommodating us? A comfortable workplace may help us feel better mentally and physically. Often, there are no-cost or low-cost changes that will provide better support for your body and improve body function. You may notice a positive change in attitude from making personal adaptations.

In a blog post, a physical therapist explained elements of posture and position. He noted that back and neck pain can result from long periods of sitting. He states, “Maintain good sitting posture by ensuring you maintain a good lumbar lordosis (the natural curve in your lower back) every time you sit.” Your back and neck pain may be caused by poor posture or “excessive intervertebral disc pressure.” [iv] Looking down at your monitor puts strain on your neck. Go ahead: Try it. Next, sit straight with the monitor positioned as shown.

This PT’s practice provides additional, specific adjustments and best practices for “How to Set Up an Ergonomic Office”:[v]

Monitor Positioning

Your computer monitor should be directly in front of you at an arm’s length away. Keeping the top of the screen in line with your eye level is optimal for viewing comfortably and will help prevent eye strain after extended periods of using a computer. (Mayo Clinic has a “live” video, which may help you better assess your sitting position with respect to a monitor and keyboard.) [vi])

Keyboard and Mouse Placement

You should place your keyboard and mouse on the same surface in a position where you can reach both easily.  Your wrists should be straight while you are typing, your hands should be below your elbows and your upper arms should stay close to your body. Learning how to use the shortcuts on your keyboard will reduce the amount of mouse usage required, which will help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome and allow you to type for an extended time without a problem.

Arranging Important Objects

Keep objects that you frequently use, such as your phone, pen and stapler close to your body to minimize the amount of movement required to grab them.

Use a Headset

Phone meetings tend to last a long time, which means that holding your phone up to your head can become tiring. Using a headset with your phone will allow you to rest your hands and continue writing at the same time.

Chair Adjustment

The chair in your office should provide a sufficient level of support for spinal curves. The chair’s height should be adjusted so that you can rest your feet comfortably on the floor with your thighs parallel to the floor. The armrests should be adjusted so that your arms can rest and allow your shoulders to relax. This position should prevent you from slouching into an uncomfortable posture and experiencing back pain as a result. (You can also use a lumbar roll if your chair doesn’t have built-in lumbar support. A rolled-up towel may suffice.)

Desk Location

There should be a sufficient amount of space underneath your desk to rest your knees, feet and thighs. You can place blocks under a desk if it is too low and is not adjustable. You can raise your chair if the desk is too high and is not adjustable. Placing padding around the sharp corners of the desk can help prevent injuries and provide you with a place to rest your wrist comfortably.

Use a Footrest

Using a footrest is an excellent option for people who cannot reach the floor with their feet. You can use a small stool or stack of papers if a footrest is not available. Taking this action will significantly reduce the strain on your feet and legs and provide you with a more comfortable sitting position.

Take Frequent Breaks

Simply going for a quick walk can significantly improve your levels of comfort while working in your office. Sitting for a long time can negatively impact the even flow of blood throughout your body. Stretching and other forms of exercise can help you get back to a comfortable sitting position.

Change your Position

A position that you are working in may not be as comfortable after an hour has passed by. When you start to lose comfort in the position you are in, consider changing your position. Sitting the same way for a long time restricts blood flow and is bad for your muscles.

Understand the Injuries

Ergonomic injuries develop after a significant amount of time spent in an uncomfortable position. An awkward posture, an extended frequency of sitting or high force can cause musculoskeletal disorders. Brief exposure to these poor sitting habits will typically not cause any harm, but prolonged exposure can lead to severe issues.

Invest in Adjustable Furniture

One of the key factors is to invest in comfortable furniture that is suitable for your needs. Adjustable furniture is typically the best option because your needs may change over time. The way you position yourself in the furniture is also a core aspect of ergonomic office space. Understanding how all of these factors work together will allow you to recognize poor sitting.

There are adjustable desks.  The basic rules about monitor and keyboard placement apply whether you are standing, using a stool, or sitting.

See Footnote 4.

Looking down at other hand-held devices also can cause neck and back pain. As noted earlier, this puts excessive pressure on the space between spinal discs.

See Footnote 4.

Mayo Clinic provides a series of narrated videos for stretches that you can do at your desk.[vii] Cary Orthopaedics provides a link to exercises to help your back become stronger.[viii]

“How I Upgraded My Office During the Pandemic: 9 Tiny changes I wish I’d made earlier”[ix] describes some readily available items, including a keyboard and mouse (especially if you are using a laptop), wrist rest pad(s), an additional screen, seat cushions. The author also added a standing desk. As weeks passed, the lack of diversity increased; the author noted that she needed more to refresh her spirits. For “[m]ore [j]oy,” the author added a weekly bouquet of fresh flowers; then a diffuser with essential oils. She imagined adding more plants and crystals.

If you want to review more product selections, Wired Magazine updated “Everything You Need to Work From Home Like a Pro.”[x]  This article includes computers, adjustable desks, chairs, laptop mounts, display, USB adapters, etc. Wired constantly updates selections and recommendations.

This article offers DIY suggestions that most of us can make to increase physical comfort in our work places. Please try some of these suggestions. Our bodies are constantly changing and aging. We should respect this precious resource by making best efforts not only for professional, product production but also for best maintenance of our physical and mental structural support system.

The preceding article was researched, written and reviewed as part of the work of the NCBA Professional Vitality Committee(“PVC”). The lead author was Theresa Joan Rosenberg, sole practitioner and consultant, of Raleigh, NC. Please direct comments and suggestions to Erna Womble, Committee Chair, and Holly Morris, Communities Manager. See more of the PVC’s Compendium of articles and blog posts online.

[i]Lori Ioannou, “1 in 4 Americans will be working remotely in 2021, Upwork survey reveals,” published Dec. 15, 2020, 9 a.m. EST, updated Sat., Feb. 6, 2021, 12:32 p.m. EST.

[ii] Bethan Moorcraft, “Chubb work-from-home study shows signs of strain,” Business Insurance America, Aug. 3, 2020.

[iii] Hinge Health, Inc., “Survey Report: New Health Risks of the Remote Workplace, 2020.”

[iv] Workplace Ergonomics, “Posture and Back Pain,” Cary Orthopaepics, Oct. 6, 2020.

[v]How to Set Up an Ergonomic Office,” Cary Orthopaedics, June 11, 2020.

[vi] DeeDee Stiepan, “Home office ergonomics tips.,” Mayo Clinic News Network, Dec. 4, 2020.

[vii]Desk Stretches: Video collection, Mayo Clinic Staff,” Oct. 11, 2019.

[viii]No More Backaches: 15 Great Moves for a Stronger Back,” Healthline, medically reviewed by Daniel Bubnis, M.S., NASM-CPT, NASE Level II-CSS; written by Nicole Davis. Updated on July 1, 2019.

[ix] Sinem Gunel, “How I Upgraded My Office During the Pandemic: 9 Tiny changes I wish I’d made earlier,” July 24, 2020.

[x] Julian Chokkattu, “Everything You Need to Work From Home Like a Pro,” Wired Magazine, Dec. 23, 2020.