Computer Ergonomics and Neck Pain

Computer worker diagram shows desk height, hip and knee angles and more.
Desk height should be level with your comfortable elbows. Andy Zito/Illustration Works/Getty Images

Is Your Workstation a Pain in Your Neck?

Sitting at the computer is, far and away, the thing that causes the most neck pain in my readers who communicate with me. Even people with serious conditions tell me the pain really starts when they spend time at the computer.

The first line of defense, then, is to take the steps necessary to be in control of your computer posture, rather than the other way around.

This involves knowing how to set up your desk, monitor and even your chair. So here we go:

How High Is Your Desk?

If you’ve ever seen someone sit at a desk that was too high for them, you may have noticed they worked with their shoulders raised. (Virtual workers at coffee shops come to mind, as there are no guarantees that the tables provided are designed to fit your height.) When this happens, your neck and shoulder muscles go on overdrive to hold the position. This is a non-neutral, or awkward, posture, which is a risk factor for work-related musculoskeletal disorders.

A desk that is too low can be equally problematic. It may force you to lean forward and to sacrifice healthy spinal alignment. This may cause some muscles to tighten up and cause you pain, while others don’t contribute anything to the support of your body.

Ideally, your desk surface should be about at the level of your elbows.

This will allow you to rest your forearms on your desk without changing the position of your shoulders or your body.

Watch the Distance Between You And Your Monitor

How close or far away are you from your monitor? It makes a difference. The idea with computer set-up is to free yourself from obstructions so that you can do your work in a neutral, non-awkward posture.

As mentioned above, awkward posture is a risk factor for work-related musculoskeletal disorders, such as muscle strain, disc pain, and more. I consider the inability to easily read the characters on your screen to be an obstruction.

Another obstruction is giving space and placement priority to the other things that live on your desk. Let me ask you this: Other than your keyboard and mouse, with which desk items do you spend the most time interfacing? Your monitor. I thought so. Prioritize that.

Make Friends With The Display Screen

The display screen on your monitor can easily cause eye strain, neck pain and even trigger a migraine. Along with head, neck and shoulder alignment issues (discussed above), much of this may be due to glare. Glare is created when the screen is placed near a strong source of light, such as in front of a window or right under your overhead lights. Don’t be afraid to tinker with the monitor dials to establish the clearest picture you can.

As far as neck pain goes, the goal is to have an uninterrupted viewing line. You want to eliminate obstruction to get the best possible alignment of your head on your cervical spine. Squinting or craning to see not only affects your eyes, but your neck as well.

Adjust Your Arm Rests

If you’re anything like me, you haven’t spent much time figuring out best practices for working your chair’s arm rests. I mean, the idea of adjustable arm rests seems great when you’re in the store, but once you get the chair in your office, it all seems like such a jumble, doesn’t it? Still, adjusting arm rests to fit your individual frame is key to reducing, managing or even eliminating neck and shoulder muscle pain while working at a computer.

Maybe I can simplify this for you. Arm rests can be raised or lowered -– either with a dial or button mechanism. They can be widened or narrowed, but this takes a screw driver.

And they can pivot in or out. Not all chairs come with all adjustments. In fact, some have none. Armless chairs, for example, can be very stressful for your neck and shoulders. Other chairs have arms that cannot be adjusted. If you get one of these, just be sure the arm rests are a good fit for your body.

The key to adjusting arm rests is really to try each of them out and see how they feel. Readjust and repeat until your neck and shoulders are comfortable.


Working Safely with Video Display Terminals. U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA 3092. 1997 (revised).

Continue Reading