Healthy Lifestyle

Still Working From Home? Check Your Space To Prevent Wrist and Other Pain

Published: April 21, 2021

For many people, working from home – either full time or part time – is a long-term reality during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. If you’re reading this from your home office, take a look around you. Is your “office” actually a couch? The kitchen table? Whatever space was available for what you thought would be temporary?

Maybe you’re even starting to experience pain in the back, neck or wrists. If working from home is in your foreseeable future, it’s not too late to set up an ergonomic workspace with the proper furniture and equipment. There could be simple solutions to prevent or ease pain before serious disorders develop.


Fix Your Space

Even though that couch of yours is usually pretty comfortable, it could be one of many reasons you’re experiencing or at risk for pain. Here are some common missteps when working from home:

  • Sitting on a couch, recliner or bed. You’re not getting lower back support and are at risk for poor posture.
  • Resting your laptop on your lap. This increases forward head posture and neck strain.
  • Working at a kitchen table or countertop. These are typically higher surfaces than a desk would be in an office. A higher typing surface elevates your shoulders and causes upper back or neck pain.
  • Your keyboard is placed incorrectly or you’re using only your laptop’s keyboard. Keyboard placement affects how the wrists are positioned. If your wrists are bent too much one way or the other, this puts unnecessary pressure on the carpal canal and increases your risk for carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • Poor lighting. If you tend to work later into the evening and the lighting is poor, you’re setting yourself up for increased eye strain.

A few simple fixes could eliminate the positions causing you pain or putting you at risk:

  • Purchase a wireless keyboard and mouse for your laptop. Then place your laptop on a stack of books or shoebox to bring the top of the monitor to or just below eye level, as our natural gaze is slightly downward.
  • Sit correctly. Sit with your feet flat, supported with knees and hips at 90 to 120 degrees.
  • Relax your shoulders. Both shoulders should be in a relaxed position with elbows bent at 60 to 90 degrees.
  • Check your wrists. The wrists should be in a neutral, straight position when typing.
  • Adjust your monitor. Again, the top of the monitor should be just below eye level with your head in a neutral position. Think of your head as an 8-pound bowling ball sitting on a golf tee. Any slight tipping of your head in any direction causes the muscles in your neck and upper back to try to keep that bowling ball from falling off the tee. Strain will occur when those muscles have to work extra hard for long periods of time.
  • Change positions frequently. If it’s not possible to make a space that fits you, keep changing positions. Set a timer for every 20 minutes – stand up, stretch and change positions for 30 seconds. This is beneficial for everyone – even those in good ergonomic positions.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Other Risks

As an occupational therapist and certified hand therapist, my expertise is in the shoulders, elbows, wrists and hands. I treat cumulative trauma disorders – excessive wear and tear on muscles, tendons and tissues due to repetitive motion over a long period of time. Common disorders I see include:

  • Woman holding her wrist pain from using computer

    Carpal tunnel syndrome. This can be caused when the wrist is held in a bent position – either up or to the side – or when there’s prolonged pressure to the wrist or palm.

  • Cubital tunnel syndrome. This can happen when the elbow rests heavily on an armrest or is held too much in flexion (forearm is moved toward your body).
  • Lateral epicondylitis. This occurs when the mouse is positioned too far away and the wrist is held in extension (bent backward).
  • Tendonitis. This condition is inflammation or irritation of a tendon most common around shoulders, elbows, wrists, knees and heels.

Carpal tunnel syndrome may be the most widely known of these disorders. Common symptoms include:

  • Hand or wrist aches
  • Numbness/tingling in thumb, index finger and long finger when typing, driving or gripping
  • Numbness/tingling in thumb, index finger and long finger when waking up in the morning
  • Pain “shooting” from wrist up into the forearm or shoulder
  • Thumb, index finger and long finger “falling asleep” at night

If left untreated, the numbness and tingling will worsen and pain will increase. Eventually, the muscle that pulls the thumb around to grasp or touch the tip of the little finger will lose its strength. The longer the pressure to the median nerve, the longer it will take to heal. In extreme cases, the damage to the nerve is irreversible.


If Pain Persists

If you’re experiencing hand, wrist, elbow or shoulder pain, don’t brush it off. Try some of the above fixes to your workspace and remember to keep moving and stretching. If your pain persists for more than two weeks or is getting worse, it might be beneficial to see your provider and get a referral for hand therapy. If caught early, pain can often be resolved quickly and no further medical intervention will be needed.

At Methodist Fremont Health, I’m also happy to answer any questions or screen someone who thinks they need treatment. Often, this can be done with a simple phone call: (402) 727-3329.

More Resources

About the Author

Brenda Halbmaier, OTR/L, CHT, CEAS, is an occupational therapist, certified hand therapist and certified ergonomic assessment specialist at Methodist Fremont Health. 

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Brenda Halbmaier