Neck, Upper Back Tension, and Headaches
From the viewpoint of Ergonomics, there are two essential questions.
- 1. Is the headache or tension related to postures assumed while working, sleeping, or doing activities?
- 2. Is there a way to decrease the functional effect of the headache or tension by improving postures (e.g. keep the headache or tension from interfering with the work you need to do)?
This article will focus on sitting posture, for those that spend at least one hour sitting without standing during the day. The principles are true for anyone who uses a chair.
Keep in mind that postures resulting in headaches generally also lead to tight neck and upper back muscles – and well as overall non-optimal ergonomics.
There are two basic theories on sitting posture. They are mutually exclusive – that is you can’t do them at the same time. However, optimally, you may move from one to the other throughout the day, but you can’t use both at the same time.
- 1. Good Sitting requires good back support.
- This is based on the theory that maintaining the correct postural curves in the back is supremely important. In fact, it is.
The spine is build of three different types of vertebrae, each shaped to allow it to perform movement and action in a particular way allowing the human to move with strength and flexibility. Chairs based on this principle (if fitted correctly) can be very supportive and be extremely comfortable. They generally have excellent lumbar support, sometimes neck and head support, arm rests, and cradle you.
However, (this gets back to the stability vs mobility question) they can also hold you, or encourage you to maintain, one posture. ANY posture held for long periods of time can be problematic.
- 2. The human body is built to move. The best position is the NEXT position. In fact, this is true.
- Chairs based on this theory are moveable. They twist, rock, move from side to side, and almost any other motion you can think of. There are Saddle Seat chairs that have little or no lumbar support. There are chairs that are really balls. There are seat cushions you can add to ordinary chairs that are essentially balloons.
To maintain your balance, you must actively move. Balancing your head and spine is not enough. . They REQUIRE that you actively work to maintain a good posture. The amount of work required varies, depending on the chair you choose and on the work you do. The more stationary your work, the less work required.
These two basic theories guide ergonomic chair design. Either the chair is designed to support good posture, or it’s built to challenge balance. Neither is wrong. Which is right for you depends on your physical condition and on what you do while you are sitting.
Headaches, back tension and neck tension/aches can result from having a chair that doesn’t fit the work, or having a chair that doesn’t give you the support or mobility your body needs. This is assuming we sit in chairs as the designer intends.
HA! There’s the rub!
Once you have the right chair for your body and your job, you have to sit in it correctly!
This includes your tailbone position, where you allow yourself to relax and where you maintain tension, how you maintain your neck position when you are accommodating for any vision changes you experience due to aging or other vision impairment, any spots on your monitor screen, any glare or reflected light, etc.
It includes how you hold your neck, shoulder and arm positions when you use your telephone, where your keyboard and mouse are placed and where any other objects you need for your job are placed.
It includes your general muscle tone, and how your body reacts to gravity over a full day of work.
Oh my golly! Am I saying that approaching headaches and upper body tension by looking at your work area is an impossible task?
No. I’m just saying it’s complex. For most people some basic changes will make a big difference.
- You do need a chair that works for you. If you decide to move from a chair based on one theory to a chair based on another, you need to do it slowly and allow your body to re-lean what is required of it. If your headaches are frequent, you probably need a chair that provides more support.
- Be sure to sit back in your chair. Make sure your tailbone is as far back in the chair as you can get it.
- The older you get, the more important your monitor height becomes. For most people over thirty, eye height should be approximately the height of the top of the monitor, allowing a relaxed, downward gaze.
- You need to keep your work tools close. Minimize reaching.
- NEVER cradle your phone between your shoulder and chin. If you answer the phone frequently OR you are on the phone for more than a few minutes, get a headset. I notice the difference although I have fewer than 5 calls a day – probably because I need to access my computer at the same time I’m on the phone.
- Stand up frequently. Set stretch reminders on your calendar, so that you are reminded at least hourly. If you can walk up and down the aisle, that’s better. If you can do stretching exercises, that’s even better.
- Remember to take some complete breaths every hour or so. This will give you a boost of oxygen and a postural reminder.
- Remember to relax and have fun, even in a stressful environment. This decreases overall tension and makes any headache a little lighter.
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