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Working from Home with Arthritis

Like many who have transitioned to working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, you may have quickly realized that typing away on your laptop at the kitchen table feels very different from doing so at your desk at work. Perhaps you are experiencing more pain or muscle aches at the end of the workday because your home work station is secretly hurting your joints.

While offices are generally outfitted for proper ergonomics — think desktop monitors, keyboards, and adjustable chairs — the spaces we use to work from home may not lend themselves as well to best ergonomics practices. However, there are easy, inexpensive ways to customize your home workspace to protect your joints and muscles.

This is particularly important if you have a chronic condition like arthritis.

“Those with arthritis already have to consider protecting their joints, and may be dealing with chronic pain or decreased range of motion,” says occupational therapist Julie Dorsey, OTD, OTR/L, an associate professor of occupational therapy at Ithaca College in New York. “Setting up the working environment in a comfortable way can help protect joints, reduce pain and inflammation during the day, and even benefit your productivity.”

You might even find that working from home provides unique opportunities for you to stretch, move around, and vary your working position, which could benefit your joints in the long run. (If you live with someone who can’t work from home during COVID-19, here’s how to stay safe at home.)

Follow these five easy tips to make your home workspace healthier.

1. Start with your chair

The chair is the foundation of your workstation, so take time to consider where you sit while you work. How you sit affects your arms, head, neck, and legs. Awkward posture can put stress on your joints and muscles over the course of the workday.

“If your hips and spine aren’t supported because the chair is not set up properly, the rest of your body will suffer,” says Dorsey.

While the chair at your workplace might be adjustable or cushioned, it’s possible you’ve been working on a wooden kitchen chair or even a stool for the past few months.

Try to find a comfortable chair in your home that offers back support. Add pillows or towel rolls if needed for extra support.

“What’s nice about being home is that you can experiment with different things to see what feels right,” says Dorsey. “If a chair is too deep, a large bedroom pillow would work to push yourself forward. Meanwhile, a rolled hand towel can be a targeted way to provide lumbar support in the small of your back.”

Sit on a pillow if your chair is too low for the table you’re working at. Make sure the edge of the chair is about three to four inches from the back of your knee, so that the chair supports your thighs and prevents compression of the tissues in your legs. That compression can otherwise decrease blood flow to the lower legs.

2. Consider a foot rest

If your feet dangle in the chair you use for work at home, put a binder, textbook, or box under your feet to help them rest more comfortably.

“When your legs are dangling and not supported, it can impact the angle of the pelvis and spine,” says Dorsey. “The weight of your legs increases the pressure of the chair against the back of your thighs, which can compress the tissues and decrease blood flow.”

If a table needs to be raised higher for your chair, you can prop it on sturdy boards, blocks, or another type of support —only if it is stable and safe to do so.

That said, the appropriate desk height for typing is typically lower than you think. Your elbows should be at greater than 90 degrees for optimal blood flow and neutral wrist position.

If all of your work surfaces are high (greater than 30 inches if you’re 5’6” to 5’8”), try sitting in a higher chair or using pillows to prop yourself up, says Dorsey.

3. Position your monitor correctly

It’s important to set up your computer station so that your neck is in a neutral position.

“Our heads are heavy — about 10 to 12 pounds — and when our necks are flexed forward, it increases the stress on the cervical spine and puts strain on the muscles, ligaments, and vertebral discs between the vertebrae to support the weight of the head,” says Dorsey. “People with arthritis may already have narrowed space between their vertebrae in the neck, so sustained forward flexion can be even more damaging for them.”

In other words, if your head juts forward, even slightly, or you find yourself looking down at your computer, tablet, or phone, you’re putting too much pressure on your neck and this can lead to pain over time.

The best-case scenario would be to use an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse at home, since laptops aren’t designed for sustained desktop use (the monitor will always be too low, or the keyboard too high, for proper ergonomics). If it’s not possible for you to use a monitor at home, investing in only an inexpensive keyboard and mouse to use with your laptop can still make a big difference.

If you do have access to an external monitor, your eyes should be level with the top of it when you’re looking straight ahead. If it’s too low, try propping it on books — but don’t go too high. When you look up, your eyes are exposed to more air, which can lead to dryness and irritation.

Dorsey also recommends these general rules of thumb when adjusting your monitor, keyboard, and mouse:

  • Your monitor should be an arm’s length away when you’re sitting back comfortably in your chair
  • The “H” in the keyboard should be aligned with the middle of your body
  • The mouse should be as close to the keyboard as possible to prevent awkward shoulder movements
  • Your wrists should be in a neutral position, and not flexed upward or downward (use a few socks or folded washcloths for a DIY wrist wrest)

If possible, use keyboard shortcuts to reduce the amount of time you are using the mouse, adjust the mouse sensitivity if possible so it only requires a light touch, and alternate the hand you use to operate the mouse by moving it to the other side of the keyboard, per the Mayo Clinic. This may take some getting used to.

4. Create a standing work station

You don’t need an expensive standing desk to do this. If possible, designate two spots in your home where you can work: one for sitting work and one for standing work.

“Your standing station could be a higher counter or dresser that you put your laptop on and work at for a little while,” says Dorsey. “If you have low back pain or prior surgeries, it can be really hard to sit for a long period of time. Standing provides the option to change position and takes some strain off the lower back.”

If you don’t have a surface in your home that’s the right height for a standing station, use an ironing board that can be adjusted in height. You can also take phone calls, read a report, or even write work notes by hand while standing up.

It’s helpful to use a speakerphone or headset if you need to talk and type or write at the same time. This allows you to avoid cradling the phone between your head and neck.

5. Set reminders to move around throughout the day

When you work at a computer all day, your body tends to hunch forward. Simple household tasks throughout the day like reaching for a glass from the cabinet or taking in the mail from the floor gently stretches your muscles, lubricates the joints, and benefits blood flow.

“Static postures like sitting, on the other hand, cause strain over time because the muscles are constantly contracted,” says Dorsey. “You probably won’t feel the discomfort until you get up to take a break. At that point, there could already be microdamage to muscles that haven’t had the chance to relax or joints that have been strained in an awkward position.”

To avoid this, jot down a reminder on a sticky note or set a phone alarm to take a break every 30 to 60 minutes. This can include active breaks like walking to the kitchen and passive breaks like seated stretches or breathing exercises. Keep water at your workstation to stay hydrated, and dress in layers if it helps you maintain a comfortable temperature.

One of the benefits of working from home with arthritis is that you might find it easier to stand up for a quick break or customize your workstation — things that may feel less natural in a shared office space.

“At work, you might not be able to walk around or use a speakerphone, or to stand at a counter to do work,” says Dorsey. “Being at home gives you more flexibility to utilize different types of work environments.”

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Interview with occupational therapist Julie Dorsey, OTD, OTR/L, an associate professor of occupational therapy at Ithaca College in New York

Home Office Ergonomic Tips. American Occupational Therapy Association. May 22, 2020. https://www.aota.org/~/media/Corporate/Files/Practice/Manage/Home-Office-Ergonomics-Tips.pdf.

Office ergonomics: Your how-to guide. Mayo Clinic. May 22, 2020. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/office-ergonomics/art-20046169.