Computer Desk Ergonomics

by in Back Pain, Neck Pain, Work Health February 21, 2008

Using your computer improperly and having an unbalanced desk set-up can lead to chronic musculoskeletal complaints such as wrist pain, neck and shoulder tension, and even low back pain. Simple shifts in your desk arrangements can make a big difference in alleviating chronic aches and pains.
Quick Tips for Computer and Desk Set-Up and Use:

A normal desk height is 28-30” above the floor. This is comfortable for writing on paper, but it is too high for keyboard and mouse work. You may need to raise your chair slightly to get the optimal height. Make sure to use a foot rest to maintain proper seating posture. Another option is to consider using a height adjustable keyboard/mouse tray system beneath the work system.

Adjust chair so thighs are roughly parallel with the floor. Your knees should be at an open angle (90° or slightly greater). Your feet should be flat on the floor or on a foot rest. Sit back in your chair or use a cushion for lower back support. The seat should not apply pressure to the back of your knees and there should be about an inch on both sides of your legs. Do not use the armrests while typing, only between typing sessions.

An adjustable chair is a good investment to prevent long-term problems.
If your chair is too low, use a cushion to boost you up. If your chair is too high, consider using a footrest to bring your thighs parallel with the ground (you could use a telephone book!) If your seat is too deep (creating pressure on the backs of your knees), use a pillow, rolled towel, or backrest to support your lower back.

Center your monitor directly in front of you. Sit arms length away when you’re sitting back in your chair. Position the top of your screen level with your eyes (unless your screen is 20” or larger then position the top of the monitor 3” above eye level). Tilt your monitor slightly upward. Reduce glare and balance the brightness of the monitor with its surroundings.

Consider using an adjustable keyboard/mouse tray. Your keyboard should be just above the level of your lap which is lower than most people place their keyboard. This lets your arms tilt downward, leaving your elbows at a comfortable, open angle (>90°). Adjust your chair upwards to get this effect if you do not have a separate tray. Use a slight negative tilt with your keyboard (tilt back edge of keyboard slightly down) versus an upward tilt. If there are “legs” attached to the underside of the keyboard, do not extend them. Keep your wrists neutral, your shoulders relaxed, and your elbows at your side.

Place your mouse close to your keyboard and within easy reach to avoid constantly outstretching your arm which leads to neck and shoulder pain. Use of a touchpad or scroll wheel reduces the distance and amount your shoulder has to travel. Mice come in different sizes. Make sure it fits comfortably in your hand. Use your elbow, not your wrist to move the mouse. Flicking of the wrist leads to increased intracarpal pressure leading to wrist/finger pain. Use keyboard short-cuts when possible.

Do not lay documents flat on your desk while you are working on them Use a screen-mounted or free-standing document holder to keep them at the level of your screen. Make sure you have enough light to see your documents to avoid unnecessary strain.

Below is a list of common musculoskeletal complaints and associated ergonomic problems and solutions:

Neck and Shoulder Pain

  • Problem: You’re cradling the telephone between your head and your shoulder.
  • Solution: Keep your head straight and shoulders relaxed while using the phone. Consider using a hands-free headset.  
  • Problem: The documents you’re working from are too low and too far to the side.
  • Solution: Position the documents at the same level as your monitor. Consider using a document holder that attaches to your computer or sits beside it.
  • Problem: Your monitor is not the right height.
  • Solution: Make sure your monitor is directly in front of you and in line with your chair.
  • Problem: Your chair is too far away from your keyboard or desk, or the back of your chair is tilted too far back.
  • Solution: See suggestions in above section to learn how to set-up your chair and keyboard properly.
  • Problem: You wear bifocals and tilt your head back to see the computer screen.
  • Solution: Consider positioning your monitor slightly below eye level. Sit back in your chair and avoid hunching.
  • Problem: You’re leaning forward to see the screen.
  • Solution: Be conscious about sitting in upright posture against the back of your chair.

Shoulder Pain

  • Problem: Your keyboard is too low or too far away. This causes you to raise or lower your shoulders to accommodate.
  • Solution: Keep your elbows close to your sides as your type and arrange your keyboard at proper level. See proper keyboard set-up in above section.
  • Problem: Your mouse is too high, to the side, or too far away.
  • Solution: Position your mouse close to and approximately at the same height as your keyboard. Consider using a touchpad or trackball to minimize distance your shoulder has to travel.

Wrist and Forearm Pain

  • Problem: Your wrists aren’t in a neutral position.
  • Solution: Keep your wrists straight in line with your arms. People with broad chests may prefer a split design keyboard as their elbows are already pushed outward.


  • Problem: Your keyboard feet are extended, giving your keyboard an upward tilt.
  • Solution: Your keyboard should have a neutral or slightly downward tilt.
  • Problem: The edge of your desk or hard wrist rest is putting unwanted pressure on the palm side of your wrist.
  • Solution: Consider using a soft wrist rest and check the height of your keyboard.
  • Problem: You’re typing too hard or for too long.
  • Solution: Use minimal force when typing. Make sure to take frequent short breaks (30 seconds) and consider performing quick stretches.

Low Back Pain

  • Problem: Your chair isn’t offering proper lumbar support.
  • Solution: If your chair is adjustable, make sure it’s properly adjusted to fit your body. If it’s not adjustable, considering purchasing a lumbar support or using a pillow or rolled towel to support your lower back.
  • Problem: You’re not maintaining good posture.
  • Solution: Your chair may be too high or too low. Your feet should not be dangling; they should either reach the floor or a footrest.
  • Problem: You’ve been sitting too long without a break.
  • Solution: Make sure to get up every few hours. Consider stretching to relax muscles and improve circulation.
  • Problem: You’re leaning forward to view your screen.
  • Solution: Be conscious about sitting in upright posture against the back of your chair if necessary.

Hip and Leg Pain

  • Problem: Your legs are cramped under your desk.
  • Solution: Clear the space under your desk so that your legs can move freely.
  • Problem: The padding on your seat is too firm.
  • Solution: Make sure your seat is padded. The angle between your chair back and seat may be too tight. Adjusting the backrest backwards slightly or the seat downward may help.
  • Problem: You’ve been sitting too long without a break.
  • Solution: Your legs need occasional movement to keep blood flowing and to avoid stiffness.

Knee Pain

  • Problem: Your chair is too low or too high. Dangling feet may cause knee pain.
  • Solution: Raise or lower your chair as necessary.
  • Problem: Your seat is too deep which can cause pressure on the back of your knees.
  • Solution: Tilting the seatback slightly forward or using a back pillow may help. Some adjustable chairs now have sliding seats that adjust for depth. 

– Dr. Nicole Sundene, Naturopathic Physician

  1. Great info! Thanks

  2. Not sure if the lady in the photo is supposed to be a good example or a bad example, but she seems to be illustrating what not to do 🙂
    .-= Jason´s last blog ..Evoluent Vertical Mouse Review =-.

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