Workspace Ergonomics for Hypermobility: Part 1
We spend WAY too many hours of our lives sitting, whether that it is in cars, on the couch, or behind a computer screen. Unfortunately with the invention of laptop computers mobile devices, even if we’re not sitting at our desk at the computer, we’re sitting somewhere else with a laptop in our laps or a device in our hands. That’s why we need to talk about workspace ergonomics for hypermobility.
This reality leads us to many hours in bad posture – especially if you are hypermobile. Most people with hypermobility have fairly poor core strength, not to mention a distinct inability to hold their upper body upright. Ask any hypermobile teenager, and you’ll hear them say the number one thing they get nagged about is their posture or “slouching”. While I’d love to use this information to excuse your posture, my aim is rather to educate you and help you to understand why the struggle is so real, and why we need to work so hard to combat it.The typical hypermobile posture looks something like this:
- slouched upper back
- rounded shoulders
- head poked forward
- feet not flat on the floor – more likely that legs twisted around each other, or they’re being sat on
- leaning on forearms or elbows and supporting the head via the chin
It really SHOULD look like this:
- When you sit at your DESK you should be able to relax your shoulders while bending your elbows to 90 degrees. If you have to shrug your shoulders, so your arms are above the table, your table is too high. If you are constantly leaning down and hunching your back, your table is probably too low.
- When you sit on your CHAIR, your hips and knees should also bend to 90 degrees. If your whole foot doesn’t touch the floor, your hips aren’t going to stay at 90 degrees for very long. You need a footrest. If money is an issue, try some old telephone books under your feet.
A desktop computer setup is ideal because it stays relatively the same. That means once you set it up, you don’t need to stress about it as much.
If you are using a laptop computer do yourself a favour: take yourself on a break to JB HI-FI or Officeworks and buy yourself an external keyboard and mouse, and preferably a laptop stand like this one shown.
Plug them in, put your laptop on its stand. Push the laptop on its stand to the back of your desk and then use your keyboard, mouse and laptop just like a desktop computer. Laptop computers were not designed for us to spend 8 hours a day behind them. Nothing about them is ergonomic; it is purely about being compact and lightweight.
You need a supportive, preferably height adjustable chair that you can set and forget to your correct specs. The beauty of the height adjustable chair is that it means you can accommodate the height of the desk more easily. Play around with the height until you can comfortably sit at your desk with elbows bent to 90 degrees. Once you’ve got that part right, we can work on the lower body.
You also need to consider the length of the seat. You will be amazed at the variability in seat length, and that’s because we are all different lengths from our lower back to behind our knees. For someone with shorter legs or a child, a regular chair might be too deep, which means it cuts into the backs of your knees. And if that’s the case, you’re more likely to wriggle your bottom forward and then slouch back into the chair. At least 2-4cm of clearance between the back of your knees and the seat is ideal. Don’t go the other way and go too short though; you want the majority of your legs to be supported by the seat. Aim for no more than 5cm gap between the edge of the seat and the back of your knees.
What do you do if your hips aren’t at less than 90 degrees (e.g. your knees are higher than your hips)? Try a pillow or cushion under your bottom. If this works and you’re looking for a longer term solution, you could get some memory foam cut and find a method of affixing it to your chair. Get creative.
I’m quite tall (171cm) and I use a footrest. Footrests are not only for the vertically-challenged or those with short legs. It’s actually dependent on the height of the desk at which you’re sitting. If you have had to raise your chair height considerably to meet the 90-degree elbow test, then chances are you’re going to need a footrest to support you from below.
Footrests help provide a solid base of support for us. This solid base of support is also the reason why we suggest feet are flat on the ground/footrest. Having this solid base of support performs another important function. It helps keep our hips in a good position. When sitting we are aiming for a hip angle of 90 degrees (unless advised otherwise), and a knee angle, also of 90 degrees.
When buying a footrest, it’s preferable to get one that * has an adjustable angle/tilt and multiple heights, like this one shown * feels comfortable under your feet, with and without shoes on * is lightweight enough for you to move around yourself, but heavy enough that it doesn’t slide away every time you touch it.
What do you do if you’re sitting at a desk that’s too short? Step one: If you can, lower your chair. Be careful that your knees and hips can stay at 90 degrees. If they can’t, try step 2. Step two: Can you raise the desk? If no, step 3 Step three: Can you raise/increase the height of the work surface? (Can you put something underneath what you’re doing?) Step four: Move to somewhere more appropriate!!!
This setup applies to both home and work. At work, however, you really should have an ergonomic workplace assessment done, and your employer should make accommodations for your needs. For someone people, this will be a battle, and it might be easier to make the adjustments yourself (although not advised).
What about at school? That’s where things always get a bit trickier. Having worked in schools a lot, I know that you don’t get much say over what you sit on. High school is far more of a problem due to the need to move classrooms all day; this is the time to embrace creativity.
Seat too low? Sit on a jumper (or blazer, nicely folded!). Seat too high, so you’re slouching? Can you raise your work surface by putting some additional books underneath what you’re doing? Seat too high, so your feet don’t touch the ground? If you’re not using your jumper or those extra books, can you put them under your feet? Seat too long and cutting in behind your knees? Try rolling up your jumper and putting it behind your back?
Short of asking for a special chair to have in your classrooms, which I know from experience most high schools are unlikely to accommodate; I would suggest moving around frequently. Putting things in the garbage bin, reaching to pick things up off the floor. Or, if you want to be more straightforward about it, ask the teacher if you can have permission to get up and move around/stand at the back of the classroom.
Have you found something that has made your life easier when using technology? Share it with us!Stay tuned for PART 2 in our Ergonomics for Hypermobility Series.
Michelle is a Senior Occupational Therapist working solely with adults with hypermobility and related conditions. Michelle is the owner of Hypermobility Connect, an online platform for people with hypermobility to connect with resources, health professionals & each other. Michelle practices OT in her private practice and provides education to health professionals relating to hypermobility conditions.