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Five out of ten patients suffer from joint pain caused by long hours of sitting in front of computer or other work related incorrect postures, says a top health official.

“Bad posture, especially when it is repetitive, is likely to cause joint pains,” says Dr Suad Trebinjac, Medical Director of the Dubai Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Centre. “For some people the problem flares up within months and for some after several years. Ageing and incorrect posture are both triggers for postural problems and joint and muscular pains. The normal ageing process affects the body and that coupled with incorrect posture is a warning sign.” 

In Dr Trebinjac’s experience, around 50 per cent of the patients he treats have issues related to desk jobs. “Half of our patients are those with neck, back and wrist pains caused due to jobs that demand them to stay glued to the computer screens for hours every day or other jobs that demand sitting for long hours.” 

Posture-related pain also affects people with more physical jobs than sitting at a computer. “We treat a lot of dentists for shoulder and upper back pain because their work demands them to slouch over their chair in an incorrect posture,” explains Dr Trebinjac. “We also see a lot of nurses and those who lift heavy weights at work for lower back problems due to incorrect lifting techniques.”

Pains of the desk

“Most of our patients are those who do have desk jobs and sit for hours per day,” says Dr Trebinjac. “Sitting for long hours is very harmful to your health and causes more problems than just posture-related issues. In fact, research proves that even if an adult exercises for one hour a day but has a job that requires long hours of sitting, the effect of that one hour of exercise will not offset eight to ten hours of sitting a day. There’s a new term for it; it’s called people who are actively sedentary.

"If they are at risk from long hours of sitting, can you imagine the health risks people face who are not exercising at all and have jobs that demand sitting all day?”

Tim Garrett, CEO of Corporate Wellness Co., says, “Research with our clients highlighted that 69 per cent of employees experienced at least one episode of back or neck pain over the past 12 months. This is classified as perceived pain of four or more out of 10. International statistics point out that poor office ergonomics is now the second leading cause of sick days for organisations.

"The average cost for a spinal surgery in the UAE and the wider Middle East is $20,000 (Dh73,450). In addition to the cost, the ordeal people need to go through and the fact that this affects their quality of life are stand-alone factors that should encourage organisations and employees to consider office ergonomics a priority for their health and wellness.”

Dr Trebinjac believes that there are simple steps that can be taken to prevent these health problems. “People can avoid these problems through a three-step approach: correct office ergonomics, regular stretching and breaks, and strengthening of muscles through exercise. Those suffering from these problems should visit a physiotherapist to get a specific tailor-made plan designed for them.”

He explains that people who need to sit in front of computer screens for long hours normally hold their neck and head forward while working or cradling a phone to their ear. This can lead to strains in the cervical vertebrae along with permanent imbalances, which can lead to neck strain, sore shoulders and back.

Sitting also puts more pressure on the spine than standing. If a person is sitting hunched in front of a computer, the impact is worse. Sitting excessively can also increase the risk of herniated disks.

Sedentary strain

Being sedentary during your working day can also lead to issues with how you look. “Normally people who sit for long hours also have weak abdominals and are more prone to fat belly issues,” says Dr Trebinjac. “Standing requires a person to tense their abdominal muscles, which go unused when we sit, which ultimately leading to weak abdominals and tight glutes. Therefore the exercise plan must focus on core strengthening and gluten and hamstring strengthening and flexibility.”

Dr Trebinjac recommends that people who sit for long hours should first get their office ergonomics right. “The basic idea is to ensure you do not bend your neck forward and this is possible when you lift your computer screen to your eye level so that your neck is in the neutral position and your back is not slouched in front of the screen. To do this, you can buy a laptop screen lifter and a separate keypad with a wrist support, so that your wrists are not inclined due to a raised platform. Finally, the chair should be comfortable and you can use lumbar support cushions to protect your back.”

Once you get the office ergonomics right, the next step, adds Dr Trebinjac, is taking regular breaks away from the computer screen.

Dr Isam Al Mikhi, Specialist Physiotherapist at the Dubai Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Centre, says, “A one-minute break is not enough. Regular breaks should be taken every 45 minutes to one hour and should last at least five minutes. This is very important to prevent body pain and stiffness. The last thing a person should do during this break is look at their smartphones. It’s a break from the chair and all forms of technology.”

The third step is to do stretching exercises during this break. “Neck, shoulder and back stretching coupled with a few minutes of standing or walking around will definitely help prevent these problems provided the office ergonomics is right,” says Dr Al Mikhi. 

He adds that people working on computers at home or even at the office should try using a fit ball for a few hours instead of a chair. “Additionally, people need to exercise regularly. I would strongly advise at least 30 minutes of walking, jogging, or any kind of aerobic activity every day. 

“Ideally, plan a weekly exercise routine that includes both aerobic and anaerobic exercise. At the end of the day, movement is the answer to most health problems people face today.”