Ergonomics in the Office
While an office job may seem better suited for a person with rheumatoid arthritis than manual labor, the repetitive tasks and long periods of sitting involved in most office jobs can take a toll as well. A simple action such as controlling a mouse can cause my hand to swell, my wrist to burn, and my index finger, which I use to operate the scroll button, to lock up. Similarly, long periods of typing lead to swollen, painful fingers, hands and wrists. If I’m typing without the aid of some helpful devices, this pain will go into my elbows and shoulders as well. Sitting for extended periods of time can lead to significant pain in my hips, sacroiliac joints, and knees. In the 16 years I’ve had RA I’ve come to realize that a certain amount of pain is going to be involved in any day spent in front of a computer. Yet, I’ve also discovered there are some beneficial tools that can decrease the amount of discomfort caused by a day in the office.
Ergonomic keyboard. One of the most crucial assistive devices in my workspace is an ergonomic keyboard. It is larger than most keyboards, allowing my hands to move more freely as I type, versus the constricted motions required to use small keyboards. In addition, mine is raised in the middle, and then slopes downward to the outer edges. This places the hands in a more natural position, reducing both strain on wrists and compression of the nerves that can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. Initially, my ergonomic keyboard took a little getting used to (which also led to some grumbling from my husband when using our desktop computer at home), however, with a little practice typing with my hands in this altered position has become second nature.
Keyboard/mouse tray. Depending on the height of the desk, a keyboard tray not only serves as a space-saver, but it can also decrease strain on wrists, elbows, and shoulders. For instance, my desk at home is too high for me to rest my elbows on the arms of my office chair while typing on a keyboard placed on the desk itself. Having a pullout keyboard tray lowers the keyboard, so that I can rest my arms while typing. This helps my joints and reduces tension in my neck muscles. The same issue applies to the mouse. While many keyboard trays are wide enough to accommodate both a keyboard and a mouse pad, my ergonomic keyboard is so large that I have an additional, smaller tray that is designed to hold my mouse. It also comes outfitted with a wrist support, which positions my hand in a less painful position.
Ergonomic mouse. As the trend seems to be smaller is better, finding a larger mouse can take a little searching these days. However, I find it makes a huge difference for the joints in my hand if I use a larger mouse that doesn’t require my hand to conform as tightly as the smaller versions do. There are also many ergonomic mice that have features that go beyond large size and being contoured to better fit one’s hand. For instance, there are vertical mice that put the hand in a more natural position, similar to my raised-in-the-middle ergonomic keyboard. There are also mice that use a tracking ball that eliminates the need to move the mouse at all. Currently, the largest source of my discomfort while using a mouse is in my index finger, which locks up painfully when using the scroll button for extended periods of time. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a mouse that utilizes an alternate method of scrolling. Therefore, I make it a practice to sometimes scroll with my middle finger as well, which gives my index finger a needed break.
Supportive office chair. Whenever I change jobs, my office chair comes with me. I purchased it years ago because the one provided at my place of employment was not nearly supportive enough (and I wasn’t aware of my ADA rights, which are mentioned at the end of this article). An adequate office chair has arms, enabling me to rest my elbows and remove strain from my shoulders; it has a high back with a headrest that is actually designed to rest one’s head against (many “headrests” can only be used if you lean way back in the chair); it has a comfortable seat; and it is height adjustable. When buying an office chair, I find it important to test out the range of the height adjustment, as some chairs can go higher and lower than others. As I mentioned earlier, being at the right height enables me to rest my elbows on the chair’s arms while typing. As painful as sitting for long periods of time can become, having a supportive chair is essential.
Balance disc. At certain times in my life, even a great office chair isn’t comfortable enough. When I’m having hip issues, being in a seated position for long stretches can send pain shooting into my joints, and can cause them to lock up on me. For a while this was such a problem that I toyed with the idea of using a balance ball instead of a chair. The idea behind sitting on a balance ball is that your body does not remain stationary, and instead makes constant, tiny movements to keep the body upright. However, between the conspicuousness of such a chair and feeling like I might be sacrificing my wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints in exchange for hip relief, as a balance ball doesn’t have arms or a back to provide support to the body, left me unwilling to try it out. Instead, I purchased a balance disc. This is an inflatable round cushion that can be placed in a chair, and is supposed to have similar benefits as the balance ball. While not a cure-all, I have found that using a balance disc does remove some of the strain from my hip joints as well as my lower back.
Footrest. Another tool I use in order to relieve some of the pressure from my hips and knees is an adjustable footrest that goes on the floor under my desk. It changes the position I am sitting in, and therefore allows me to shift in my seat while continuing to work. My footrest can be adjusted simply by applying pressure to the toes or heels, which enables me to frequently shift my position as needed to have my ankles, knees, or hips in a slightly different position.
While there are far more products available on the market that increase the ergonomics in one’s office space, these are the ones that have proved most helpful to me. It’s also important to note that depending on the size of your employer, the company you work for may be legally required to purchase needed assistive devices for you. Employers with 15 or more employees are subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which stipulates that they must provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees with documented disabilities.1 There is a clause that states that employers are only required to provide these accommodations if doing so does not present undue hardship to the employer. However, the aforementioned items are all fairly inexpensive, and an employer would be hard pressed to show a financial hardship in providing any of these items. If you are interested in having your employer provide needed accommodations, it is your responsibility to inform your employer both of your disability, which typically requires documentation from a rheumatologist, and of the accommodations you are requesting.
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