Open Thread: A Comfortable and Pain-Free Office…

a comfortable and pain free office

2018 Update: We still think this is a fascinating discussion of how to have a comfortable and pain-free office — but you may want to check out our more recent discussion on how to get better ergonomics at the office.

Here’s something we’re curious about:  How many of you have picked out your own desk chairs, keyboard drawers, and so forth in an effort to make your office more ergonomic and comfortable? Which brands have you found to be the best?

We’ve read a million articles about how — without the right set-up — your office could be causing you back pain, headaches, eye strain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and more. In terms of eye strain, we’ve noticed a huge difference in a flat-screen monitor versus one of the old CRT monitors.  We also prefer a keyboard tray versus having our keyboard sitting on top of our desk.  Otherwise, we are far from experts on the subjects, so thought we would turn to you guys.  Does anyone swear by the Aeron chair?  Did changing the “refresh rate” for your monitor change your life?  Do tell — what are your best tips for a comfortable and pain-free office?

(Pictured:  Ergonomics matters, originally uploaded to Flickr by Ezu.)

Further reading:
Office Ergonomics, WebMD

How to Ease Back and Neck Pain at the Office, eHow


  1. this is like the most minor of ergonomics, but I had AWFUL wrist pain throughout law school, concentrated in my right wrist (I lean on that wrist when I type). I went to the doc and he told me it was tendonitis. It was unbearable while studying for the bar, but it got 95% better with I bought this $1.99 wrist-guard thing from Duane Reade that looks like a wrist brace and has a cushy part the goes right under your wrist. Now that I work and have a permanent spot, I just use one of those cushy bars that go in front of my keyboard. But if you’re a student and constantly moving your laptop around, invest the $1.99 and avoid tendonitis.

    • A further note on tendonitis. During my 2L year I developed this excrutiating pain down the side of my wrist (holding your hand out and looking at the back of your hand, starting at the base of the thumb and going down a few inches past the wrist). Went to the doctor and it turns out I had developed a specific kind of tendonitis called de quervain’s tendonitis. The culprit? My beloved track-ball mouse (a stationary mouse with a ball you move with your thumb which controls the mouse).
      After about a month in a wrist splint to take pressure off my wrist, it finally healed up. Ditched the track-ball. According to my doctor, they’re meant to help with preventing carpal tunnel, but are somewhat notorious for causing this problem.
      The only solution I’ve found was to stick to using the mousepad on my laptop. Le sigh.

      • I’ve switched back and forth between track ball and built-in track pad on my computer over the years. Changing things up really helps with wrist pain.

  2. I swear by my Anthro cart. It is sturdy, simple, and adjusts in myriad ways to accommodate all types of equipment. I’ve had it for ten years and it’s as good as new. Anthro makes all types of ergonomic office equipment and I love the way they use their employees as models:

  3. Prescription computer glasses. Has eliminated virtually all of my headaches.

    • I second this. A cheap pair of reading glasses from the pharmacy is all you need (start with strength 1 and adjust as needed).

      • la peagoise :

        not all you need. i have to wear RX reading glasses for all reading (and sometimes just for seeing, thank you astigmatism…). i have worked HOURS at a time on my laptop with no problems. put me in front of the old crt monitors at work and i’ve got a headache in 10 minutes. good screens are worth a lot.

    • In a pinch, using control-plus (+ sign) to increase font size helps, too.

      • Anti-reflective coating is a necessity. Totally worth the extra $100 or whatever ludicrous amount it costs.

        • Hate the anti-reflective coating unless there have been miracle advances since the last time I had it in 2002 – I had to clean my glasses every 5 minutes otherwise everythin was blurry. Think looking through Crisco smeared on your lenses.

          • I’ve never had this problem and have had anti-reflective coating since 2005 or 2006, so you should give it another try. Most glasses stores have a 30 day guarantee so you can exchange the glasses if you don’t like the lenses.

  4. My previous employer had the Aeron chairs. They are fabulous. I have a damaged sacroiliac joint, and sitting for any amount of time can be horribly uncomfortable. The beauty of the Aeron is that it is so adjustable.
    Unfortunately, my current employer has the cheapest chairs possible. I ended up getting a letter from my rheumatologist stating I needed a new chair as a reasonable accommodation. New chair works, but I still dream of the Aeron.

    • i had an uncomfortable chair at my old job, and I bought a lumbar support-thing from walgreens. i think it’s this one:

      it was amazing! i sit all weird, and every day i’d come home with the sorest shoulders. But the mesh support thing worked wonders and, while it didn’t make my chair an Aeron, it did help my shoulders loosen up.

      • I’ve been sitting on an aeron at work for a little over a year now and I hate it. I don’t find it particularly comfortable, and the mesh irritates me, even through clothes.

        • I don’t have a problem with the mesh, but I don’t find the Aeron very comfortable either…perhaps I don’t have it adjusted correctly though.

          • I don’t like these chairs and I’ve had it adjusted every which way and it never works. But I am convinced they have a life span that stretchiness in the mesh stuff that has long expired on the one I finally sent back in favor of some other expensive chair that just refused to be comfortable for more than a few hours at a time.
            My solution? I bought a giant pilates ball that I occasionally sit on and even stretch out on (after normal business hours). It is a huge relief for my back and legs that get sore after sitting for too long.

    • I’m surprised you like it so much. I have SI joint problems and a herniated lumbar disc, and I’d rather do headstands than sit on an Aeron.

      • I hate my Aeron chair, too. The mesh is very unsupportive (and I don’t weigh much). Also, it’s too “plasticky” so it retains heat and irritates me. The arms are totally pointless and yet nobody can figure out how to remove them. I’ve often wondered who finds these chairs comfortable, and I had assumed it was men.

        • Agreed…. Perhaps a case of too many settings? My last job had varying degrees of pimped out Aerons depending on your job (yes, someone – my boss – put waaaay too much thought into the status conferred by what Aeron you sat on), and I finally traded mine for a much cheaper model that eliminated the back pain the Aeron caused me — The only thing I can think of is that at 5’2″ with short legs, perhaps the chair was oversized for my body…

          • newassociate :

            the aeron comes in sizes A, B, and C. i use an A and got it adjusted by the visiting ergonomist, which helped a lot. of course, this was *after* i developed tendonitis and went on worker’s comp. six months of physical therapy and doctors’ visits and i’m still not all the way better. i probably won’t ever be, so long as i am working. doc review is bad in so many ways.

            i find the most crucial things are to sleep in the (very unsexy) wrist braces, and switch mouse hands about once an hour. if my arms start bothering me, i will strap on the tendonitis brace, which goes right below the elbow. also, stretching and avoiding working on a laptop keyboard and trackpad as much as possible. the “ergonomic” keyboards are forbidden to me as i have small hands (an octave + 1-2 notes on a piano).

            shayna, you should also get a foot rest.

  5. This also falls in the minor camp but I brought a non-halogen lamp & it has done wonders for both my eyes & my overall mood. I absolutely can’t stand awful, overhead lighting, and bringing a cute little 60 watt lamp for my desk has made my desk feel so much cozier, it’s unreal. Maybe it was all in my mind, but the halogen overheads were just draining all my energy.
    I am a big fan of bringing in whatever you need to make your space feel cozier and more comfortable. You’re there the better part of your week — make it pleasant!

    • Anonymous :

      I completely agree! My small desk lamp has made all the difference for me. Now I only turn on one of the two overhead lights, plus the desk lamp, and I am a much-happier camper.

    • Same here! I have 2 desk lamps – one firm-issued-upon request, one $20 number from Target, and I leave the overhead lights at half strength (used to have the bulb in the one directly overhead unscrewed, in my old office – wonderful). So cozy and energizing.

      I also have kind of a crazy set-up that has eliminated my tendonitis in my right wrist. Have both computer screens pushed to the far back of my desk, and my ergonomic keyboard all the way up against their bases, so my arms rest on my desk in front of me while I type. I’ve stacked post-it notes under the front of the keyboard on either side, so that my wrists aren’t too bent while I type.

      I went to a presentation on ergonomic office set-ups, came back and made all of these adjustments, and it totally worked. Used to get serious, achy, swollen pain after typing all day, and very rarely if ever have any issues now.

    • Totally agree on the desk lamp! I love my Ott lamp (natural light spectrum) and have one at work and home desks. I’m luck to have lots of daylight, but on cloudy days, it really helps.

  6. water girl :

    The company I work for does not purchase Aeron chairs, but it was so important for me that I went ahead and purchased my own and brought it in to the office. It’s been eight years now and I’ve never once regretted…….money very well spent!! My company did purchase a wonderful desk for me……it goes up and down, electronically. This means that I am able to stand, sit, stand, etc. The Aeron chair and the desk that goes up/down mean that I can change positions often. This is HUGE!!!

    • Oh – jealous of the desk! What a great idea. Now you just need one of those under-the-desk treadmills and you’ll be set!

      • Under the desk TREADMILLS?

        • yes! For standing desks! Apparently it works wonders and isn’t disruptive or tiring. I will have retired by the time law firms accept this kind of thing, but I’ve seen articles on it here and there and am always really jealous. The interviewees are always nice and trim and say that it’s energizing.

          • Maybe this makes me a terrible person, but if someone has an under the desk treadmill in his/her office, I will not take them seriously. If you are at work, then work. If it is time for a workout, then workout. But combining the two? It is laughable to think that either the work or the workout will be good.

        • water girl :

          Please say this treadmill thing is a joke!!!

          • I’m seen news stories on them… you walk 1 or 2 mph… I can’t imagine having the coordination necessary to not fall while typing or making a call, let alone concentrating enough to accomplish anything useful while on/in it

  7. I have an Aeron chair and my back/pelvis is still killing me. I figured the chair just wasn’t all that, but apparently I’m really in trouble!

  8. Quick question – to those who have special chairs (or who don’t but indicate physical discomfort) – did you have some sort of pre-existing issues before you started work, or is the back/neck/etc. discomfort caused by the workplace chairs?

    I’m curious because I’ve never considered getting any type of special chair or desk accommodations. I don’t have any injuries or pre-existing conditions but wondering if I’m setting myself up for trouble later on down the road by not taking preventative steps.

    • Pre-existing condition here, and I was already registered with my company as a person with a disability. Some companies require this before they will make reasonable accommodations.

    • I got a herniated disk in my lower back about 1.5 years into being a practicing lawyer. Don’t know for sure what caused it, but sitting all day certainly doesn’t help.

  9. I’ve had a wide variety of chairs. I think a bad chair can be really terrible, but a good chair isn’t a panacea. The only thing you can really do to prevent problems is get up and move every once in a while, and change how you’re sitting/positioned. I try to take five minutes a couple times a day, close my office door, kick off my shoes, and stretch or dance around a bit.

    Also, this isn’t exactly what C meant by a “pain-free” office, but I’m so, so happy that I brought in a fish tank and set it up in my office. I tend to get stress headaches, and the fax machine and copiers are right outside my office which made the headaches even worse. The sound of the water filter and bubbles in the fish tank have improved my office environment ten-fold. Since I’m almost always arriving earlier or staying later than the rest of the office, I just change the water and do tank maintenance in the early morning or in the evening. It’s so relaxing.

    • I have been thinking about getting a fish tank for my office, but what do you do on weekends and holidays with respect to feeding? I try not to come in to the office every weekend if I can help it.

      • I just use three-day weekend tabs. They dissolve over time and release bits of food.

        • Huh, I had no idea such a thing existed. I will have to look into it. Thanks!

      • Anon for this :

        I have a beta fish in the office that I received as a gift from a coworker in a large office-wide gift swap a couple years ago. Betas don’t like filters and don’t need to be fed all that often. Mine does just fine without being fed over the weekend, including 3-day weekends. I change the water once a week. I have two coworkers who love the fish and will do feedings when I’m away for more than a day (I’ll often bring them a little something back if I’m on vacation).

        This is probably one of those things that “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office” would recommend against (she doesn’t contemplate this, but I bet she’d hate it) but I love my little fishie!

        • I’ve seen a lot of high-powered men with beautiful fish tanks in their offices. So long as you don’t run around telling everyone how cute your fishy is and calling it Pookie, I don’t see how this could possibly hurt your career.

          Then again, I never understood how it could hurt my career to win our office pie bake-off hands down, either.

    • Eeek. I think fish tanks are kind of creepy, but I know a lot of people like them. I wonder what other animals people have brought into the office? If I brought my cat in, that would help me relax.

      • I would love to bring my cat to work! I love getting midday kitty snuggles when I work from home. But she wouldn’t like it, and neither would allergy sufferers.

        Where I grew up in Colorado, people pretty much always brought their dogs to work. My mom (a nurse) always brought her dog to visit patients at home (dog stayed in the car if the patients didn’t like her). And one of my professors often had her golden retriever in her office. People tend to be so much happier with animals around. I find, though, on the East Coast, there are a lot of people who don’t like animals. Since everyone I knew grew up with animals around, this is unfathomable to me.

      • Funny. I always thought cats were a bit creepy and fish were soothing. (I’m not trying to be snarky, really mean it – I feel uncomfortable around cats.) I guess this is the reason why workplaces don’t let us bring pets – not everyone may feel the same way about them.

    • Oh my gosh, what a great idea!

    • Two words: stand-up desk.


      I couldn’t live without mine.

  10. water girl :

    The pre-existing condition that I had before starting in my current line of work is that I had never been so sedentary; my body was used to moving a lot, not sitting all day! Back and shoulder pain developed after only a week or two of sitting at a desk all day. The Aeron chair helped tremendously, right off the bat, and then a few years later added the desk that goes up/down. My thought is that it really isn’t natural to sit in one position all day, and that while forcing our bodies to get used to that may have short-term benefits, perhaps it is not such a great idea in the long run. After all, we hope to be healthy, active old people someday, don’t we?

    • Yes, me too. I was very active before becoming a full-time office worker and I started to get horrible shoulder, neck and back pain. I keep an exercise ball in the office, and used to keep a Yoga mat as well. I also get up probably every 20 minutes. And as I mentioned above, I suffered a herniated disk about 1.5 years into my legal career, presumably from sitting all day.

      There have been a lot of studies showing that sitting is really bad. I try to move around as much as possible.

  11. Anonymous :

    Gaiam Ball Chair.

  12. Standing-up desk saved my back, by wrists, my knees, my posture, my life.

  13. Aerobics ball for a chair (note: I couldn’t swing this at one formal firm I worked at, but did use it at a less formal firm and now at the government – the only downside is that I can’t wear my skirts anymore); gel wristrest for mouse; computer tray; and incandescent lighting.

  14. Anyone have a suggestion for a laptop shelf that is adjustable and could work on a corner desk setup? My pilates instructor has taken 3 years getting my shoulders down and back and every day I spend hunched at my desk undoes all our hard work. I have only seen one and it was very expensive, unattractive, and I don’t know that my office would have appreciated me drilling holes into my desk to install it.

    I keep a foam roller in my office to help massage out any sciatic/ITB tightness that I get from running in the AM and then sitting all day. (I close the door before using it though, especially on skirt days!

    • spacegeek :

      I have a 3M adjustable keyboard tray that “came” with my office. It was not specifically for use in a corner, but it works anyway. It has a part number AKT100LE–I’m looking at it right now.

  15. la peagoise :

    my office is really awful (old CRT monitors, huge bulky desk that is nowhere near comfortable for me to type at, cheapo keyboard, desk chair that doesn’t adjust anymore) but even if you have ergonomic, comfy stuff, you still need to get up and walk around:

    lifehacker has some links for easy-to-build standing desks. if my computer wasn’t so ridiculously heavy that it would collapse any standing desk, i would be all over that. those of you who work places that buy staff things, you might consider this.

    meanwhile, i’m still excited that they bought me a $15 wireless mouse.

  16. I’m a 2L and having been an office warrior before going back to school, I figured out what I needed to do in order to make studying and constant typing more comfortable – I elevate my laptop monitor to eye level, use a seperate keyboard for typing at home, and hand-write most of my notes at school.

    My summer employer, in all their prescience, has an ergonomic consultant come in on an employee’s first day in order to set up their workspace to minimize problems. I was informed of this when they extended the offer to me and it seriously made my day. Maybe I was a little too excited about it, but my weird proportions (long torso, long legs, shorter arms), make sitting comfortably in many standard-issue office equipment a nightmare.

    • Hey, what do you use to elevate your laptop to eye level? Please share, I’m a 3L and need this tip.

      • Phone books! We have so many laying around and they’re the perfect size. I’m sure textbooks or those old Gilbert’s you can’t seem to get rid of would be fine too. One big phone book (white + yellow pages) is the perfect size for me.

        • But what about something portable, to and from home and the library and all the many places I run around in any given day? I don’t always have big books handy…

          • No help for you there – I do most of my typing at home, and at school, i usually tilt my screen back a bit so i can sit up straight and still see the screen clearly without developing “study neck.” Good luck?

      • I’m a 1L and developed a horrendous case of “study neck” from staring down at a laptop screen/textbook during finals last semester. I bought a stand for my macbook:

        It doubles as a book stand, too. It’s easily portable but not something you could just toss in a backpack.

  17. Anonymous :

    This backrest that slips into my wretched office chair saved my life.
    I was barely 30 and having serious back pain, to the point of wincing when I had to lean over or sit down in a deep chair. I occasionally get a little stiff, but that is minimized by getting up, stretching and walking around like a normal person.

  18. Anonymous :

    I have been searching for an office chair for a while now. I am 5’0″, and weigh 110 pounds. The chairs my firm has are built for the big and tall. That said, they are so deep that my feet don’t reach the ground and fall asleep, the back support hits me at about my shoulder blades, and I don’t seem to have enough body weight to easily maneuver the chair. I have just about had it with the back pain! Does anyone have any suggestions for chairs that are more comfortable for us smaller women? Thanks!

    • I feel your pain (literally!) I’ve noticed that older office chairs are much smaller (I presume because people used to be smaller). At my old firm I found one in an abandoned closet, and it saved me. It was a heinous mauvey pink from the early 80’s, but I really didn’t care. Also, have you considered a back pillow? I got one (it’s called Back-Huggar, yes spelled like that) and it really helped. Yeah, so I was the major dork in the mauve chair with the back pillow!

    • 5–1 here. It’s not just the chair; the chair and the desk are designed for average men. At home, I bought a desk from a school furniture company. It’s height adjustable, so I adjusted it so that I could sit at it on a chair with my feet on the ground! What a concept. and, of course, I have a keyboard tray, At work, it’s weekly massages. There is nothing you can do without a keyboard tray. Even with one, I have to adjust the chair up to make my arms comfortable and then sit cross legged with both feet off the floor. Not too professional looking from the back or side, but in most offices, visitors can’t tell.
      Re the mauve chair. Yes, I’ve dug out old secretary chairs – they have shorter seats so that occasionally, one can even reach the back of the chair instead of perching on the edge.

  19. Aeron chair, ergonomic keyboard (the keys are split between my left and right hands and it tilts slightly upward at the split) rather than using the keyboard on my laptop, keyboard is on a table that is lower than my desk. I tried various wrist rests but found the split keyboard to be what works best for me. And since I didn’t like a telephone headset I try to remember not to hold the telephone receiver in place with my shoulder.

    • I’m not a headset person either, but in every office I’ve worked, I’ve attached a shoulder rest to the phone. It’s pretty firm, but I think it’s got gel inside and is kind of a swoopy shape. Can’t live without one. They’re not expensive (under $20 I think).

  20. I have always struggled with wrist pain and some shoulder pain. I have nearly eliminated the pain by:

    1. sitting in a well adjusted Aeron chair;
    2. using an Evoluent mouse for my LEFT hand (although I am right- handed, using a left handed mouse reduces pressure on my right hand. It took only minutes to learn how to use my left hand on the mouse)
    3. surrounding my desk with light with 5 lamps that focus on what I am reading;
    4. learning all keyboard shortcuts and creating my own to avoid using the mouse (and I keep a short list of them pasted near my computer) ;
    5. at the first sign of wrist pain, wearing a futuro wrist support bandage with stiff, metal support that keeps my wrist from bending. I usually only need it once every two weeks, and just wear if for an hour;
    6. using a split ergonomic keyboard by Microsoft (but there are many makers).
    7. raising my monitor so that I look straight at it with no hunching;

    For the person asking about chairs for shorter people, I have heard that there are footstools for shorter people to rest their feet on (like a nursing mothers stool) that is a cheaper option than a custom chair. Not an issue for me, but I have heard it works for some.

    • water girl :

      Yes!! I am tall and have longs legs, but keep a little wooden footstool under my desk. Helps so much to put one or both feet up for a change; it relieves the pressure on the backside of your legs that comes with sitting for extended periods, and provides another option for changing positions.

    • Seventh Sister :

      I change my mouse from left-click to right-click every so often to reduce the pressure on my wrists.

      Another thing I did was change the size of the text on my monitors from default to pretty large (at the suggestion of my eye doctor).

  21. Doctors cite computer vision syndrome as the number one work-related health complaint. Comp eye strain can also contribute to other problems, like neck and back strain. Check out an optometrist’s tips to for setting your workspace up to reduce CVS symptoms,

  22. Thanks for the great information on posture.

    We are also very interested in improving our own and also helping others improve their posture. If you are interested we wrote about some of the information that we have found so far on Posture that we found useful:
    1. Couple of tests that a person can perform in order to test their posture.
    2. A tool from Ergotron that allows you to find your optimal sitting and viewing positions.
    3. Research from an Ohio State Study on how posture can boost your confidence.

    If interested in viewing any of the info above please visit our site under ‘Posture’ category.

    Hope this helps and thanks again for your information!

  23. I ordered a back support and foot rest from our office supply catalog to relieve lower back problems, and I use a flat-screen monitor elevated on a monitor stand so it is at eye level. This helps greatly. I also have an exercise ball in my office that I should use more than I do.

    • Oh, also, I have a 100w floor lamp and a 60w desk lamp. I hate the overhead florescent lighting, especially because I don’t have a window.

  24. Anyone have some suggestions for neck/shoulder pain? My firm-issued chair doesn’t come up high enough so there is nothing to rest my shoulders/upper back on! At least I think that’s what causing the (excrutiating, daily) pain. Should I just suck it up and buy my own chair or is there a less expensive solution that someone knows about? Thanks!

    • Have you asked if they’ll get you a new chair? You might point out that your pain is so bad you’re considering physical therapy, and you would file a workman’s comp claim for that (actually your insurance company would probably insist you do so).

  25. operaghost :

    I used to have to sit sideways because my computer is on my credenza, and there was nowhere under my desk for my knees to go. This was (as you may imagine) horribly uncomfortable, so I made building maintainance come in and unscrew the lower portion of my credenza so my legs can slide right under my computer monitor. Best. Idea. Ever.

    I also work out regularly, and I’ve found that helps tremendously with back/shoulder pain.

  26. A great thing to do for pain caused by use of a mouse is to switch from mousing with your right hand to your left. It only takes a couple of days to become proficient at it. It solved my wrist pain problem completely.

  27. I have a slanted footrest under my desk – it helped my back and shoulder pain because I could put my chair up high enough that my elbows were at a 90 degree angle when I’m typing (instead of having to lift my arms up to reach my keyboard, which stressed my shoulders and upper back). Make sure you get a solid one with a rubber surface; I had a cheap molded plastic one at first, and my feet slid right off. Now I have one covered in carpet and I can adjust the angle of the slant. It’s great.
    I also have a book rest between my keyboard and computer monitor, so I don’t have to crane my neck to read or write anymore.
    The other thing that really helped was moving the books and tools I use most frequently to within an easy arms reach; I used to always be stretching and leaning to get legal books from shelves, and that made everything worse.

  28. The company ergonomics person set me up with some variation on an Aeron chair (but sized for people 5’2″ like me), gel wrist pads for the mouse and keyboard, and a foot rest- the foot rest has been great for keeping pressure off my knees.

    • I just Googled Aeron chairs to see what everyone was talking about and realized that’s what I’ve got right now! they’re awful! the back is very wierdly shaped; I don’t even know how tall people sit in it. And the seat has these little wing things which make it very hard to cross my legs. the seat itself is huge, so I’m nowhere near the back anyway. And of course, the companies never buy the foot ring.

      Has anyone tried a universal foot ring?

  29. I can’t live without:

    – Headset for the phone: allows me to talk and type notes on the conversation at the same time, and also allows me to stand up and walk around during longer conversations. I’m already so tense in my shoulders that it hurts to carry a shoulder bag — scrunching my shoulder up to hold the phone, or even tilting my head a little bit if I had one of the attachments, would be terrible for me.

    – Book/paper stand, for quick reference to documents.

    – Foot rest, for reasons stated above

    – A curved keyboard, back when I was doing nothing but typing all day.

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