Desk Height and the Risks of Neck Pain

If your desk is not the right height for you, you may be spending too much time with “non-neutral,” aka, “awkward” neck and shoulder posture. Awkward or non-neutral positioning is a known risk factor for musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).1

The standard desk height is 29” give or take an inch. (Some ergonomists argue strongly that this is a “one size fits all” measurement that fits manufacturer’s needs more than those of the end users.) Regardless, it’s pretty obvious that not everyone will fit perfectly into a desk of this size. You may be petite, or extra tall. Or maybe just an extra half inch or inch would make a big difference in the way the desk fits. You are in the best position to determine this.

Desk Height Too High

If your desk is too high, most likely you’ll overwork your shoulder and arm muscles. In particular, when your shoulder muscles are contracted all day long, the shoulder blades have a tendency to ride up by your ears and stay there indefinitely. This posture quickly becomes a habit—one that we forget we have, but just the same wreaks havoc on the well-being of our necks, shoulders, and upper backs.

Checking yourself for “Office Worker’s Shoulder Scrunch” is easy. Next time you’re at a mirror, look to see if your shoulders are raised, i.e., up by your ears. Try to bring them down. You may feel a stretch as you do this.

Whether you have a mirror or not, you can check your trapezius muscles, which are located at the top of your shoulders, for tension and pain.2The same is true for your levator scapula muscle, which is located just below the bottom of your skull in back all the way to the inner tip of the scapula (shoulder blade). Both muscles—but particularly the levator scapula—are key players in the “Office Worker’s Shoulder Scrunch,” by the way.

A desk that’s too high may also cause you to work with your neck in extension (head back) to enable you to see your monitor.3 This may create tension or pain at the back or your skull or neck. It may also lead to neck cricks.

If your desk is too high, other than getting another desk, your options are limited. You can raise the height of the chair, which may create the need for a footrest if you are short. You could also cut the legs of your desk, but come on—who does that? If that’s your only option, it may be time to go shopping.

Desk Height Too Low

If your desk is too low, you may find you spend a lot of time holding your arms out in order to reach the keyboard. This creates static tension in your arm muscles which can lead to pain and posture issues.

A low desk may also encourage slumping. Otherwise, how will you reach your keyboard? Slumping can create shoulder, neck, and upper back muscle tension and weakness, as well as a sunken chest. Along with the muscle tension and weakness, a constant sunken chest position may contribute to a postural kyphosis.

If your desk is too low, the low-tech way to raise it is by inserting boards, blocks, or books under the legs of the desk.

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General Tips

Here are a few more things to consider when establishing a desk height you can live with:

  • OSHA recommends that your monitor be at eye level or a little lower. The key is to make sure your neck is comfortable and you’re incurring as little neck muscle tension as you can.
  • Your workstation should allow for space above your knees as well as a keyboard height that keeps your shoulders and arms in that minimal tension, neutral posture discussed above. 
  • Check that your desk height is at approximately the same level as your elbows. If, when you sit at your workstation, you can keep your elbows bent at approximately a 90-degree angle with straight wrists, you likely have the right desk height.
  • If you are a numbers person and you really want an exact measurement for your desk height, here’s a handy plug and play tool that may help. All you have to do is put in your height, and the program will produce the recommended floor to elbow measurement (plus a few others).
  • A desk that has a height adjustment is a good idea, especially if you share the workstation, but if that’s a luxury consider using an adjustable keyboard or similar accessory. Because they limit space (and other reasons), they may not be perfect solutions, but finding the right one could possibly help inexpensively get your desk height at a comfortable level.
  • If a shopping trip is in order, don’t forget the sit to stand desk—they are all the rage these days.4 Workers who use these adjust them regularly—that’s what they are built for. This means that adjusting one should be easy and after a few tries, you’ll likely be very clear on the exact height that’s right for you, in both sitting and standing positions.

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