How To Fix Shoulder And Back Pain

Have you heard your workforce complain of sore shoulders or even lower back pain? This post is all about sharing a big tip that I have used for years to address these extremely common ergonomic concerns and get quick results in the office. Plus there is a free download that helps to guide you through this strategy! Scroll down to see a really simple ergonomic strategy that can help to address pain in the office and as well as prevent injuries from ever occurring in the first place!

THE TIP IS: Make Sure The Desk Is At A Good Height.

Its simple and straightforward. If the desk is not a good height for that person it can contribute to some of the biggest problems that I see in office ergonomics – lower back pain and shoulder pain!

In one of my past posts I shared that one of the most important aspects to ergonomic comfort in the office is whether or not the full backrest (especially the lower back support) is used. It seems so simple to identify and ‘coach’ someone to do but in reality it can be a lot harder to keep on track. Leaning forward in the chair (and not using the back support) is one of the most common body positions that I see in the office. And it’s also one of the riskiest. Leaning forward in the chair is ergonomic risky and has been linked to contribute to lower back pain as you can see in this article. The two big issues with leaning forward in a chair are below; they both contribute to a lot of the ‘wear and tear’ that we associate with the development of lower back pain.

  • Leaning forward puts an extreme amount of pressure on the intervertebral discs of the lower back (lumbar) spine – almost doubling the pressure compared to standing alone.
  • Leaning forward accelerates back fatigue exponentially.

TAKE MY ADVICE: Back Pain usually is a result of a systemic problem in someone’s workstation set-up.

Like the picture above shows, people tend to lean forward because their work surface (including their desk, keyboard, and mouse) is too high for them and this is usually above a neutral (aka relaxed) elbow/shoulder position. Why do people do this? Generally speaking, leaning forward in a chair is a tactic to get a more comfortable typing position; people tend to sacrifice their back comfort to lean forward and type from a slightly higher working position. If you can identify and address this, you are off to the races. The next part of this post I’m going to explain my simple strategy on how to fix this problem. If you are interested in how to apply this strategy to the entire workstation set-up, you can check it out in this ebook.

By addressing underlying reasons why someone isn’t using their backrest you can get much better results with ergonomics!

There’s a couple of ways to approach this problem. You can either use a measuring tape or use generalities combined with feedback from the person (or yourself if you are doing a ‘self-assessment’). To be honest I usually use a combination of the two whenever I need to address this to hedge my bets so to speak; I combine the hard (aka measuring tape) with the softer (aka how that person feels) measurements. Combining the two also can help to engage the person into the ergonomic process which is always good when you are trying to make a lasting change in someone’s workstation. It’s good to have that person understand the reasoning why you are making the changes to their workstation!

Option 1: Sit with a neutral/comfortable elbow position and go from there.

In this option, have the person (or yourself!) sit with their elbows positioned at about 90 degrees (there is some wiggle room in this) and with relaxed shoulders. And here’s the big tip – make sure that their back is fully supported (and comfortable) on their backrest. A key thing is that there shouldn’t be any strain whatsoever in the upper arms or shoulder position. If there is some discomfort then they are not in an ideal position – reset and try again! To get a neutral posture, the armrests may need to be lowered to their lowest and even widest position.

After the person is in this position, have them scoot their chair forwards towards their desk, keeping the arms in that neutral elbow position with their wrists straight/fingers straight and inline with their forearm. This should look like this graphic below!

If the working surface, with special attention to the keyboard and mouse is higher than their hands, then the work surface should be considered to be too high for them.


Option 2: Use a measuring tape to get an exact set-up.

Using the same neutral elbow position from the first option, now grab a measuring tape to measure the height between the ground and the underside of their elbow. Then measure the working surface height (the top) of the desk. To that add the keyboard and mouse heights to get a more accurate number of a functional hand working height.

Next, compare these values. Ideally the neutral elbow height should be just higher than the work surface height (including the keyboard and mouse). If the work surface is too high or too low for the person it can lead to that person using a non-neutral and uncomfortable working position.

FREE DOWNLOAD! Get the step-by-step process that I describe next to optimize the hand working height! It’s a useful download to have on hand so you can save and reference later!

What To Do Next?

So, like I mentioned above, I use a combination of Option 1 and 2 whenever I do ergonomic assessments. This gives a better result since you use both worker feedback and direct measurements.

If you have identified that the work surface is higher than the neutral elbow height there are a few ways to address it. Functionally, all of these would have the same outcome: an improved hand working height as well as that person’s back resting in the backrest. The trick to this is in the execution of the solution. To get the best outcomes aka whether or not that person sits with their back resting in their chair actually depends on their habits, preferences, and budgetary allowance.  

What I typically would suggest next is one of these options (which one you choose depends on your specifics):

  1. Raise The Chair. This is a simple and no-cost solution that allows the person to sit with their arms in a comfortable sitting position with their back fully supported by the backrest. Since the chair is raised, the person will need some sort of footrest (like text or phone books) below their feet to make sure their feet are fully supported and a neutral posture is maintained. For this suggestion to work the person doesn’t mind ‘stepping up’ to sit in their chair but this gap shouldn’t be too extreme. Keep in mind that this is a low or no cost solution so it is likely appealing to the majority!
  2. Lower The Desk. Depending on the way that work is set-up, this could potentially be a low cost and simple suggestion. With this, you would lower the desk until it is within an optimal position for that person to work with. Some desks may be automated (like a sit-stand desk) or have built in adjustability (like a keyboard tray or adjustable legs) so it would be relatively straightforward to lower. For this suggestion to work there needs to be some sort of built in adjustability already in the desk. Otherwise it could be expensive to lower the desk.
  3. Install A Keyboard Tray. Similar to suggestion #2, you would be essentially lowering the working surface to allow that person to work comfortably. This would be a more costly suggestion but it is value added: it easily can accommodate a lot of different sized workers and work positions. Some keyboard trays can even be adjusted for standing positions too. For this suggestion to work there should be enough of a budget to purchase the keyboard tray.

Like this article? Then download the Free eBook to learn how to use a simple strategy to adjust workstations. You can grab it here.


Through the administration of countless assessments in both private and public sectors, Darcie has gained a wealth of knowledge and built a successful practice in the field of ergonomics. She has extensive expertise in conducting office ergonomics assessments in large scale workplaces for all different types of scenarios, from simple adjustments to incredibly complex cases. Darcie also has vast experience in delivering training presentations on the various aspects of ergonomics “best practices” in the workplace. Darcie is a Certified Professional Ergonomist through the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics, as recognized by the International Ergonomics Association. She also has a Masters of Science, specializing in ergonomics. A little known fact about Darcie is that she once scored from half, off a free kick, in a university varsity soccer (football) match!

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