5 Weird Things Your Desk Job May Be Doing To Your Body

02/07/2014 09:04 pm ET | Updated Mar 12, 2015
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By Corrie Pikul

You can't quit your day job (yet)...but you can make it a little less uncomfortable.

1. The pain that strikes at the front door.

What you feel: A sharp pain at the base of your thumb and the inside of your hand when you turn your wrist, grasp a handle or make a fist.

What it might be: An especially painful variation of tendonitis, which is called De Quervain's tenosynovitis. It can be caused by repetitive grasping or pinching movements, explains David Rempel, MD, MPH, a professor in the Division of Occupational & Environmental Medicine at the University of California, Berkeley. Although you'll probably develop this at home (it's so common among people who lift children that it's often referred to as "mommy thumb"), you’re compounding the problem at work by pounding on the keyboard or overusing your mouse. If left untreated, the pain could spread into the forearm. A doctor may suggest injections with corticosteroids to help you heal.

The surprise threat: Check your space bar: Rempel says that it's the most frequently hit key (even more than "delete"), and if it's temperamentally sticky or unresponsive to a light touch, you'll increase the strain on your already-tender thumb. Your mouse, especially if it requires pressing buttons with your, could also be making things worse.

2. The pain that nags at you throughout the day.

What you feel: A burning ache in the back of your neck that no amount of self-massage can rub out.

What it might be: You're craning your head forward to check email or get a better look at tables and charts. Rempel says that your monitor should be at eye level -- even if you're standing while typing. Give screens a boost with books (finally, a good use for your dictionary), or place the entire device on a shelf or filing cabinet. And make sure the screen isn't too far away. You should be able to easily see lowercase characters when you're leaning back in your chair, Rempel says, so that you don't have to hunch close to read.

The surprise threat: Your neck pain could be due to something hiding behind you—or on you. Today's sleek laptops are highly reflective, and Rempel says that many people unconsciously crook their necks to see around glares caused by overhead lighting, windows or even white-colored clothing.

3. The ache that persists even when you exhale.

What you feel: The area between your neck and your bra strap is a wall of tension.

What it might be: You know what we're going to say -- you sit too much. Holding any position -- but especially a seated one -- for eight or more hours a day tires your core muscles (especially in back). Yet standing for long stretches isn't comfortable, either. Alternating between sitting and standing during the day, says Rempel, prevents the kind of stiffness that results from holding the same position. (Strengthening your shoulders with hand weights can also help.)

The surprise threat: Part of the problem could have to do with your ramrod-straight posture while sitting, which, Rempel says, can put extra weight on your spine and tire your trunk muscles. When you aren't standing, lean back in your chair. It may look a little slouchy, but it gives your back a break.

4. The pain that strikes on the commute home.

What you feel: Sore wrists or elbows at the end of a long day.

What it might be: Sounds like tendonitis -- again, but this time, the version most commonly suffered by desk laborers. Most types of this condition can be treated -- or even "cured" -- by making simple changes to your workstation or computer, says Rempel. Your keyboard should be at elbow level or slightly higher, and your arms should be bent at 45-degree angles while you type. Forearm supports can be helpful, Rempel adds, and can also help reduce neck and shoulder pain.

The surprise threat: Holding your tablet for too long (say, an entire bus ride) can bother your wrists. Try using yours vertically, in portrait orientation to better distribute the weight, and place the tablet on a stand when you're not commuting or Sunday couch-surfing.

5. The pain that wakes you up at night.

What you feel: A persistent numbness, tingling or pain in the index finger, middle finger or thumb that disturbs your sleep. It gets worse after driving or using the mouse for hours on end.

What it might be: You may be a victim of carpal tunnel syndrome, the infamous office malady that affects the wrist nerves of those who spend more than 20 hours a week working on spreadsheets or other projects that involve the mouse. Nerve injuries are more serious and take longer to heal than tendon and muscle problems, and though splints, injections and ultrasound therapy may help, Rempel says that about a quarter of these cases may require surgery.

The surprise loophole: While you hear about carpal tunnel syndrome all the time, Rempel says it's relatively rare among desk workers. Data shows it's three times more likely to affect assembly-line workers (like those who are in manufacturing, sewing, finishing, cleaning and meatpacking).

As a reminder, always consult your doctor for medical advice and treatment before starting any program.

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