Since 1950, sedentary jobs have increased by 83%, according to the American Heart Association. The average individual spends between 8-9 hours a day without physical activity, with most of this time occurring in the workplace or during work hours. Furthermore, some individuals may spend as much as 89% of their day sitting (often in suboptimal postures), putting them at risk for injury and disease. Studies indicate that as many as 20-60% of all office workers suffer from some sort of musculoskeletal disorder. The sedentary nature of these jobs increases the risk for repetitive strain and dysfunctional posture that leads to pain and injuries. In this article, we will cover what these injuries are and how to prevent them.
Repetitive Strain Injuries vs Dysfunctional Posture
Repetitive strain injuries refer to injuries that occur over time due to movements in abnormal positions or that are performed in a repetitive manner. Some examples include using your thumb to scroll through your phone on social media, typing on a computer, using the trackpad on your laptop, or any other time you find yourself overusing a particular muscle on a regular basis. Most times, this type of injury impacts the upper body and neck. Signs and symptoms include aching, numbness, cramping, tingling, tenderness, and pain.
Injuries from dysfunctional posture occur when you maintain prolonged positions that put unnecessary strain on your body structures. Sitting hunched over a workstation for long hours, slouching on a soft couch watching Netflix, constantly looking down at a phone or book are all examples of times you are maintaining suboptimal postures that can result in postural pain - and even lead to injury. Additionally, positioning yourself in a way that puts pressure on a given area, such as leaning on your elbows or pressing down on your wrists can cause compression and irritate not only the muscle tissues, but also the nerves and blood vessels.
How concerning are dysfunctional postures and repetitive strain injuries?
While these injuries may not seem concerning at first - especially for those who are young and generally healthy - they shouldn’t be taken lightly as they have the potential to progress into more severe issues in the future.
Maintaining static and dysfunctional postures over time without breaks can cause physical changes in the spine and other body structures. Some dysfunctional postures that can become more permanent in nature if left untreated include increased thoracic kyphosis (rounding of the upper back, sometimes referred to as a “hump”), movement of the head forward so the chin is protruding outward, and rounding of the shoulders closing in on the chest. Other physical changes that occur include adaptive shortening of certain muscles (making them tight and restricting normal movement), and stretching of other muscles that become so weak they can no longer perform their proper function - perpetuating the cycle of poor posture, movement dysfunction, pain, and injury.
Repetitive strain injuries result from overuse of a given muscle. This can cause irritation and inflammation to the area, excessive muscle fatigue, damage to the tissue and surrounding structures, and an inability to perform the movement depending on severity. At first, it may only be painful while performing the movement, but as the injury progresses the discomfort may last after your stop. Without proper correction it may even become a chronic, nagging condition.
Both repetitive strain injuries and sedentary behaviors resulting in dysfunctional posture if left unchecked can progress into more serious injuries such as impingement syndromes, muscle tears, nerve damage, and even arthritic changes that are harder to treat as time goes on. It is much easier to prevent the damage from occurring, rather than trying to heal already injured tissues while also correcting posture and ergonomics.
How to avoid these problems
Optimize Your Posture
The best way to optimize your posture is to understand what constitutes healthy posture and basic ergonomics. The most important thing to keep in mind is that while there are certain suggestions for proper posture, there will always be room for variations amongst different people since no two bodies are the same. In essence, proper posture puts the least amount of strain on your body and is comfortable for you. Some tips that often help when sitting include: try keeping your ears in line with your shoulders, gaze focused ahead of you without looking downwards, spine neutral without rounding or slouching your shoulders, and feet on the floor so that your hips and knees are supported and can rest comfortably. When on a computer specifically, your screen should be at or slightly below eye level, wrists in neutral, and your forearms parallel to the floor without leaning on your elbows as well so they are not compressed in any way. It is best to have a comfortable chair with a supportive back.
Limit Repetitive Movements
It is impossible to cut out certain movements from your daily life, and trying to do so would actually do more harm than good anyway. The best approach is to use proper mechanics and prevent sustained positions in awkward postures that put unnecessary stress on your joints, muscles, and ligaments. Opting for an ergonomic mouse instead of scrolling on your trackpad keeps your wrist in a healthier position that decreases repetitive strain. Limit your scrolling time on your phone or switch hands often to prevent overuse. Ultimately, taking breaks from repetitive movements is truly key.
Add in Movement Breaks
When we find ourselves sitting in one spot for a while, this is often where we start to let our posture slip or are performing repetitive tasks without much thought. Set an alarm to focus for 30-60 minutes, then take a quick standing break or a lap around the room to stretch and move your body.
Seek Physical Therapy Proactively
Contrary to popular belief, seeking a one on one physical therapy appointment isn’t just for help after an injury or surgery. Guidance from a physical therapist before problems arise can be a game changer. Your physical therapist will perform a full body postural assessment to highlight and address any muscle imbalances or weaknesses that could potentially lead to postural dysfunction over time. They’ll also have suggestions for optimal ergonomic adjustments you can implement into your daily life.
Wondering if your posture needs a tune up? Download the OneStep Digital Physical Therapy app to consult with a licensed physical therapist who can provide you with postural tips, review ergonomic safety, and provide you with stretches and exercises to help treat and prevent injury.
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