How Working at a Desk is Affecting Your Hand and Orthopedic Health

It’s been one year since COVID-19 struck Michigan and our lives have still not gone back to normal. From every day outings like grocery shopping, dining experiences and vacation plans, to more serious topics like our children’s education and our own careers, we have all been affected in some way by this global pandemic. Many Michiganders (and American’s as a whole) still find themselves working from home with no plan of returning to the office, or perhaps their roles have completely changed from more interactive jobs to desk jobs. In this article, we will discuss how working at a desk (either from home or in-office) can affect your hand and orthopedic health and the changes you can make before conditions become more serious.

Hand Issues

This may be surprising to some, but working a desk job can come with a laundry list of possible hand and upper extremity issues. Obviously injuries like lacerations, factures and tears are far less common while sitting at a desk, but without proper set up, other illnesses are extremely common in this type of workplace.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and De Quervain’s Tendonitis are two of the most common conditions caused by office jobs. Both of these conditions tend to arise due to overuse and repetitive movements in the hands and wrists from activities such as writing, typing and using the computer mouse. Carpal Tunnel, characterized by pain, numbness and/or tingling sensations in the hands and fingers, is the result of swollen tendons putting pressure on the Median Nerve. De Quervain’s Tendonitis tends to affect the thumb and wrist, causing pain, numbness and restricted motion at the base of the thumb. Trigger Finger is another tendon related issue that comes with repetitive actions, typically gripping (like holding writing utensils or small objects for much of the day). If you have trigger finger, you will notice that the tendon in your index finger tightens and causes the finger to lock in a bent position when you try to straighten.

Moving away from the hands, the elbows and forearms can also be affected from working at a desk every day. Though we typically think of Tennis Elbow being caused by sports (like tennis and golf), it can also be caused by repeated movements at your computer. Sitting at your desk with your elbows bent to type and use the mouse puts strain on the muscles and tendons that run from the hand to the elbow. This can cause pain and swelling in the elbow just like Tennis Elbow. Another elbow condition that is a little lesser known is Bursitis, a fluid buildup in the elbow caused (in this scenario) by repeatedly leaning your elbows on a hard surface such as a desk or table.

Orthopedic Issues

Hand problems are not the only pains caused by your desk job. There are several other complaints of the hips, back and neck that can come with your office set up.

Neck and back pains come from poor posture while sitting in your office chair, staring at your computer screen. Many of us tend to hunch in our chairs and strain our necks while typing away and reading emails, resulting in pain and stiffness across our upper body. While incorrect posture at the office may not seem like it would cause lasting issues, the compression on your spine can actually lead to early deterioration of your discs over time. Naturally, sitting in the same position all day with minimal movement can also cause muscle weakness which could gradually contribute to the degeneration of your back and neck function.

Your hips are also at risk of injury from your sitting position throughout the day. If your office job requires you to sit in an office chair for the majority of your shift, your hip flexors can become tight, causing pain and discomfort in your lower body. Additionally, the constant sitting can also lead to weakness in your glute muscles, tightening in your hip flexors and lower back and hip pain.

Relief!

The best solution and first line of defense for all conditions caused by desk jobs is proper desk set up and ergonomics!

Pros and Cons of Standings Desks:

You may be thinking that a standing desk will be the solution to all of your desk pains. However, it is important to know some of the possible issues that come along with standing desk arrangements.

There are some positives to standing desks. A standing desk set up can improve circulation, burn calories, it promotes stretching and good posture and aims to avoid the hip/glute pains that come with sitting all day.

On the other hand, standing for long periods of time is not good for your knees or back because of the pressure it puts on your joints. Standing desks are not a guaranteed posture change; so if you’re still hunching over at your desk, you’re in no better spot than if you were sitting in a chair. Standing can also lead to more fatigue, making you more tired and ultimately less productive during your work day.

Typically, the home office or on-location desk space isn’t exactly arranged for a standing desk scenario so our main tips focus on the traditional desk and chair arrangement:

Set-up solutions for your orthopedic pain:

  • Keep your head and neck upright with the top of your computer screen just below eye level to avoid strain on your neck.
  • Choose a chair with back support to keep your posture straight and spine in alignment.
  • Take short breaks! Stand up, stretch, move around at least once every hour to avoid the constant sitting, reducing the stress on your hips and glutes.

Set-up solutions for your hand/elbow pain:

  • Avoid resting your elbows on your desk or other hard surfaces to reduce the risk of Bursitis
  • Keep your forearms parallel to the floor and your wrist straight.
  • Your keyboard and mouse should be at elbow height and your work area should be organized with frequently used items positioned closest to your hands.
  • Perform wrist and hand stretches throughout the day to promote strength in your hands and reduce the likelihood of acquiring new injuries.
It’s important to know that while these methods can help reduce your chances of developing the above conditions, it is not a guarantee nor a cure if you are already experiencing the symptoms. In all cases, it is best to consult your primary care physician or an orthopedic and hand specialist if your symptoms are persistent over several weeks.

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