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Ergonomic desk, chair, and computer setup to avoid neck pain

Updated: May 13

An ergonomic desk-chair setup as well as the correct desk computer ergonomics can go a long way towards preventing office work from literally becoming a pain in the neck. Read our guide on how to make your desk, chair, and computer setup work together to be kinder to your neck and shoulders. There’s also advice on what else you can do to avoid computer neck pain. Remember, if you need more help with an injury, you're welcome to consult one of our physios online via video call.

Desk ergonomics that help prevent neck pain, as well as shoulder and back pain

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Best ergonomic desk-chair setup to avoid neck pain

Some people mistakenly think that sitting bolt upright with “good posture” is the best way to avoid neck pain when working at a desk. However, sitting like that without support is not sustainable in the long run. It tires your muscles out and causes them to over-work, which in turn causes muscle pain, spasms, and eventually poor posture.

Example of poor desk chair setup: No lower back support, too low and too far away from the desk.
Example of poor setup: No lower back support, chair too low and too far from the desk.

Common office chair mistakes that can lead to neck pain

  • Sitting without lumbar (lower back) support.

  • Slumping in your chair.

  • The chair pushes your upper back or neck forward.

  • The chair is too low.

  • Sitting too far from your keyboard and/or screen.

Guidelines for a good ergonomic desk-chair setup

There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all desk-chair setup, because our bodies have different shapes and sizes. A good ergonomic desk-chair setup will support your body in the position that is most comfortable for your muscles and joints.

Your feet should be flat on the floor. If they struggle to reach, lower your chair or rest your feet on something. There's a nifty footrest with a separate height adjustment for each foot as well as a width adjustment available on Amazon.

Your knees should be at the same level as or slightly lower than your hips. There should be a small gap between the back of your knees and the front edge of the seat.

The lower curve of the chair back should support your lower back. If you’re using a straight-back chair (like a dining room chair) at home, having a lumbar roll or a small cushion between your lower back and the chair back will help.

A good desk chair must support your lower back.

The top of the chair back should either be at your mid-back or, if it goes higher up, it should follow your spine’s natural curve. If it feels as if the chair back is pushing your upper back forward, the chair is likely not right for you. Ironically, I find that this is often the case with those expensive “executive” leather chairs.

If you’ve already invested in an expensive chair and find that it is pushing your upper back forward, placing a lumbar roll behind your lower back can help to bring your whole body forward and improve your position.

Here are some options to help you sit better:

The armrests must allow you to move the chair close enough to the desk so that you don’t have to extend your arms to reach your keyboard. Extending your arms for long periods will overwork your shoulder muscles.

The desk and chair must be at the right relative height to each other to allow your shoulders and arms to relax while you type. Your elbows should hang effortlessly at your sides and be at a 90-degree angle. If your desk is too high or your chair too low, it will cause your shoulders to pull up and tense. This can lead to neck and shoulder pain as well as headaches.

The best desk setup can be achieved with a height-adjustable desk. It has two benefits: You have more options for fine-tuning the relative heights of your desk and your chair, and you have the option of working standing up from time to time. (Read our article on why sitting for long periods of time is bad for your hips.)

Some sit-stand desk solutions:

Desk computer ergonomics to avoid neck pain

The following advice applies both to laptop and desktop computers.

Computer screen setup

The top of the screen must be level with your eyes. Having to look up or down for prolonged periods can cause neck pain and headaches. If you’re working on a laptop, use a laptop stand or place it on something like a stack of books; this obviously means that you’ll have to use an external keyboard and mouse.

The top of the computer screen must be level with your eyes.
The top of the computer screen must be level with your eyes.
Tip: Don't stand and work for long periods without shoes on hard floors (like the woman in the picture) - I've had patients get plantar fasciitis from doing that.

The screen must be in front of you so that you look straight ahead at it. If you use more than one screen, have the one that you use most in front of you. If you have to do computer work while dealing face-to-face with customers or clients, try to arrange things so that you look at them diagonally.

The screen must be close enough so you can read easily. If you’re having to squint, you’ll be inclined to lean forward, which will place unnecessary strain on your neck and back. Increase the zoom setting and/or use glasses if necessary.

Here are a few examples of stands to get your laptop screen at the correct height:

Choosing the right keyboard

The width of your keyboard (from left to right) should fit your body size, so that you can type without having to turn your arms in or out excessively. If you experience shoulder pain, see whether it helps to use a different size keyboard.

The keyboard should be positioned to allow your elbows to be at a 90-degree angle and to spare your wrists from having to bend up or down excessively while typing. Here, the relative heights of your chair and desk are most important (see above).

And no matter what keyboard you use, you’re not doing your neck any favours if you pinch the phone between your ear and your shoulder to free up your hands when you have to talk-and-type. Get some earbuds with a microphone or a computer headset.

Pinching the phone in your neck can also cause neck pain.
Pinching the phone with your neck can also cause neck pain.

Ergonomics alone is not enough

Looking at the research on neck pain and office ergonomics, it is clear that having the perfect desk, chair, and computer setup is not enough to prevent computer-related neck pain. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any single thing that will guarantee success.

The main factors that combine to increase or decrease your risk of getting neck pain from desk work are:

  • how well your workstation set-up suits your body and specific needs,

  • the total time you spend in front of a computer or at your desk,

  • how often you change position,

  • taking active breaks and doing specific neck exercises,

  • doing exercises or sport outside of work.

How we can help

Need more help with your injury? You’re welcome to consult one of the team at SIP online via video call for an assessment of your injury and a tailored treatment plan.

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Maryke Louw

About the Author

Maryke Louw is a chartered physiotherapist with more than 20 years' experience and a Master’s Degree in Sports Injury Management. Follow her on LinkedIn and ResearchGate.


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