Take the pain out of work

  @Money September 5, 2013: 4:08 PM ET
ergonomic

Your office setup may be the source of your aching back and painful wrists.

(Money Magazine)

Is your job a pain in the neck? Of course it is.

That question is no joke, though, for anyone who suffers from serious shoulder, neck, wrist, or back discomfort at work. Repetitive-motion injuries hurt -- both physically and financially.

Consider: The lifetime cost of carpal tunnel syndrome is about $30,000 per person, the National Institutes of Health reports.

Research also shows that people with bad backs rack up 60% more in medical bills than their healthier colleagues and that the average worker experiencing muscle, tendon, ligament, or bone pain (not including backaches) loses 5½ hours a week in productivity. Says Brad Hutchins, an ergonomist in Thousand Oaks, Calif.: "That can be just as costly as missing days in the office."

You're most at risk if you often work from home. Cornell ergonomics professor Alan Hedge found that at-home computer usage was the biggest predictor of a work-related strain injury, increasing the likelihood by 50%.

Notes Hedge: "Even full-time office workers now spend an average of six to eight hours a week working at home."

Related: Your health plan - the next frontier

Not in a position to blow $1,000 to $2,000 on an ergonomically correct desk chair? No worries. As the strategies below show, you don't have to spend a lot to get relief.

Take advantage of free fixes. Be smarter about how you work, Hutchins advises.

To alleviate strain, stretch and walk for at least a minute or two every half-hour, change your posture frequently, and take periodic minute-long typing breaks during which you rest or stretch your fingers.

Also call your HR department to see if your company has an occupational health or ergonomics consultant -- most large employers do -- and ask to have your office setup evaluated, says Mary Tavarozzi, a director at Towers Watson.

If you have a regular work-at-home arrangement, your firm may also pick up part or all of the tab for a chair with better back support or for other ergonomically helpful office equipment.

Why this doctor won't take insurance

Buy the right stuff. Company can't help or you're self-employed? Do it yourself by investing in equipment that helps keep your back, neck, and wrists in the proper position.

Focus on your computer, keyboard, and chair, which are at the root of most problems, says Raleigh, N.C., ergonomist Tim McGlothlin. Your monitor, for instance, should be high enough that your eye is in line with a point a few inches from the top of the screen. A basic stand costs only about $20.

For typing, your hands should rest at the same height as your elbows so your wrists stay flat, which typically isn't possible if you use a laptop with an attached keyboard. Solution: Spring for an external keyboard and a tray mounted under your desk to house it.

Related: 5 things to know about finding a doctor online

You don't have to shell out a grand or more for a special ergonomic chair, which won't necessarily be any better than one that costs a third as much, says McGlothlin. What's important is to get a chair with adjustable height and armrests and a backrest that supports your lower back (or has room to position a rolled-up towel at your belt line), so you can sit at a slightly reclined angle (chest back, head straight).

As for wrist rests, split keyboard trays, and forearm supports, skip 'em, says Hedge: "Ninety percent of those ergonomic gadgets just aren't that helpful."

Let Uncle Sam help. Workers who are self-employed and claim a home-office deduction can write off work-related ergonomic equipment.

To claim a tax break when you work for a company, your total unreimbursed business expenses must exceed 2% of your adjusted gross income; then you can deduct the portion of your ergonomic purchases above that threshold.

Seeing a physical therapist to get some relief from neck and back strain? You can use your flexible spending account at work to fund your co-pays with pretax dollars; prescribed massage therapy qualifies too.

That will save you some cash -- and make your workday a lot more pleasant. To top of page

Send a letter to the editor about this story to money_letters@moneymail.com.


Frugal ergonomics: The $200 solution
These gadgets will help ease your aching back without breaking the bank.
Device Estimated cost Purpose
Phone headset $10-$20 Eases shoulder and neck strain
Document holder $10-$30 Prevents eye and neck strain
Footrest $25-$40 Relieves pressure on lower back and legs
Wireless keyboard $25-$50 Helps wrists stay flat while typing
Under-desk keyboard tray $40-$100 Also supports optimal wrist position
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