Surviving Life’s Daily Stresses

Written By Dr. Daniel Shaye

A modern guide to ergonomics.

 You might imagine a car wreck, a twisted ankle on the basketball court or a fall off your roof when you think about common ways to seriously injure your neck, back, limbs and structures of the human frame. Though these things do happen every day, one of the most common risks to your health is something called microtrauma: day-in, day-out stresses of your job and daily activities. Surviving these relentless challenges is one key to living well.Let’s look at some common physical stresses, and how to face them.

Survive your computer
If your shoulders are tight or you suffer headaches and/or neck pain, examine your position at the computer. Any position that requires continuous, subtle use of your neck and shoulder muscles will eventually result in muscular fatigue, postural compensation, nerve irritation and pain. Be sure your arms hang comfortably from your shoulder joints, without excessive shoulder shrugging to hold them up. Use arm rests when feasible. Be sure your computer monitor is located in a comfortable line of sight, not overly raised, lowered or off to one side. And take frequent breaks, because the body is not well designed for static, prolonged postures. I counsel my patients to take “microbreaks,” or 10-second breaks every 10 minutes. Get your blood flowing with periodic, gentle stretch intervals.

Out-smart your chair
Sedentary jobs are very effective at harming human health and causing pain, premature arthritis and disability. Decreasing your sitting time, on the other hand, may extend your life, perhaps by several years, according to an analysis published in July 2012 in the online medical journal BMJ Open. People in certain occupations, such as pilots and truck drivers, may have a very difficult time fitting in short refresher walks, but the bottom line to surviving your chair is to get out of it. Also, get a good chair. Be sure your feet rest comfortably on the floor, supporting some of your weight. Ensure that the front edge of your seat doesn’t jam into the backs of your knees, which compromises blood flow to your calves and legs. Be sure your lower back is gently supported by a pillow or contoured, adjustable back support (some car seats will have these built in). Don’t slouch; or at least don’t spend too much time slouching.

Ditch Those devices
Devices such as cell phones, iPads and tablets can improve human productivity, as well as be very entertaining. But did you know that according to a study conducted by Ball State University in March 2009,the average American spends roughly 8.5 hours a day in front of a screen? Avoid an involuntary trip to the chiropractor by never holding your cell phone to your ear with your shoulder; pop in the earpiece instead. When using portable handheld computer-type devices, avoid jutting out your chin excessively to get closer to the screen. I’m seeing more and more seniors (yes, seniors) hunched over their cell phones and other devices, almost seeming to wrap their bodies around the tiny screens and causing what some doctors now call “text neck.” If you’re having trouble seeing, put on your glasses instead. And consider this: When’s the last day you spent 8.5 hours in face-to-face communication with another human? You just might enjoy the change of pace.

Kill your television
Flopping down on the couch at the end of a long day might feel like a treat, but couches and TV-watching chairs are rarely ergonomically correct, and too much time in them causes health issues (obesity, along with  a host of aches and pains). At the very least, position your sitting area and TV so you don’t have to hold your head in an uncomfortable position for long periods. I’ve seen TVs mounted over fireplaces that required holding the head in extension or off to one side. I’d prefer to offer a carrot: Want to live an extra 500 days? According to the previously referenced BMJ Open study, reducing your daily television time to less than two hours will do just that.

Defeat your commute:
Most of you aren’t professional drivers or airline pilots, and you can avoid some of their back, neck, and joint problems simply by spending fewer hours behind the wheel or stick. Still, many of you must regularly commute or survive the occasional distance drive. I counsel patients to fidget. Rotate your head gently. Look up and down. Do some pelvic tilts, going from a gentle slouch where you press your low back into the seat to rolling your pelvis forward; and repeat a few times to “pump” fluid to your spinal joints and discs. Rotate your shoulders forward and back. Wiggle your toes and pump your calves a little. Finally, be aware of the slow, subtle creep forward of your head. That elderly man or woman hunched over the steering wheel didn’t look that way at age 18.

Beat the agony of the feet
Standing occupations (teachers, line workers, and others) have their own special stresses. Good shoes, along with custom orthotics, are a great way to protect not just the feet but also your knees, hips, and spine. As with sitting, postural changes and microbreaks will help “take a load off.” Be sure to stand as symmetrically as possible, as your base affects everything above—if you don’t believe me, take a visit to Pisa in Italy. And if your feet hurt, consider getting them checked out by a professional (podiatrist, chiropractor, physical therapist). Catching foot problems before they’re chronic will save you a pain in the wallet, or worse.

Sleep tight
So, the day’s over, and your worries are through, yes? Not so fast… you still need to survive your bed. Sleeping postures affect your waking health. Be sure your bed is supportive; purchase a new one long before it sags or leaves you waking in pain each day. If you sleep on your side, consider a pillow between your knees and be sure your neck pillow doesn’t tilt your neck excessively up or down. If you’re a back sleeper, consider a contoured “cervical pillow” to support your natural neck (cervical) curve. Some people also like a pillow behind the knees. And if you’re a stomach sleeper, consider trying to change to a better posture. Stomach sleepers tend to strain their necks, as they must sleep with the cervical spine rotated to one side or the other.

Ask the mirror
Remember the old, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall…” ? Well, there’s a method called the Mirror Image Principal. If your head tends to drift forward, recognize that and do some work to bring it back in line. If you tend to jut your belly and hips forward, work to do the opposite. Chiropractors spend years learning to spot these postural faults, which means a chiropractor can’t go to a fall festival without noticing dozens of structural faults and problems in the making, but you too can learn to identify your bad habits and take some self-protective steps. Why not take the opportunity to “be your own doctor” when you can?