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Ergonomics and ME/CFS: Have You Hurt Yourself Without Knowing It?

Having a chronic illness like ME/CFS can make it hard to avoid problems that come from bad ergonomics. Jody Smith has learned some lessons the hard way …

pixabay-privacyErgonomics can help people to navigate in a healthy way through their world, so they are not slouching, bent funny or stuck in the same position for too long, and so they can avoid the aches, pains and problems that result from same.

Ergonomics and ME/CFS may seem like strange bedfellows. And in fact, actual ME/CFS bedfellows, those who must live all day long in their beds, may not find anything useful here. As with so many things, those who are bedridden do not fit the mould.

ME/CFS is a dictator that forces many of us to lie down, slouch in a recliner or lean on a grocery cart. On the face of it, ergonomics may seem like just another way for us to be mocked and reminded that our bodies don’t work right.

Reminders to sit up straight and keep your feet flat on the floor can be enough to set off a revolt amongst people who are bedridden and who couldn’t sit up straight to save their soul.

And if instead of a desk you use your bed for your computer, all that information about how high your monitor shoud be, and where your keyboard needs to go, reads like something written for a foreign country, or by someone who is foreign to our limitations.

It can seem like just one more set of rules that are supposedly meant to help us but in reality just give us a rude reminder that we can’t do the things that would make our lives so much more worth living.

But hang on. For those of us who can sit up, who can stand, and move about, maybe there’s something valuable here. That has been my own experience.

For years I spent hours at a time with my torso roughly curved in the shape of the letter C. I would lie on my bed, with a couple of pillows propping me up, and my knees raised to support the book I was reading. Sometimes I’d vary the menu by watching TV, but the basic position was still the same.

I was pretty sure I was going to be permanently bent forward, but I didn’t see any way around this. There just was no other position that I could stay in for very long. Lying on my side was good for sleep but not for being awake and trying to read or watch TV. So if it was going to make me crooked, so be it. I was getting through my days as best I could.

Eventually I was able to be up and around, sitting at a desk writing and editing online for hours each day. I was very happy to be doing this but my shoulders, back and arms were not happy in the least.

As I learned later, my setup was an ergonomic disaster. The desktop was the wrong height. My laptop monitor was too low and my keyboard was too high. I had knots in my shoulders and tendinitis in my shoulders, arms and hands on an ongoing basis.

My monthly naturopathic visits would take the edge off so I could continue to work but the pain and inflammation levels were hard to deal with.

I tried moving to an easy chair in the living room with a TV table as my desktop. This was a big mistake, but one I didn’t recognize for many months. The seat of the chair was too low, so my legs were not positioned properly and my ankles were always turned. My arm muscles complained constantly about being extended for hours every day as I typed.

I was crippled for the first four months of 2012, able only to move the fingers of both hands. My arms, shoulders and neck were locked in an ergonomic nightmare of my own making. I still had to work, so I learned how to type with just one hand which got the work done but it was a real drag.

I came to realize that if I wanted to be able to function I was going to have to do some research and find out what needed to be changed, and then change it. Fortunately I was well enough, and had enough money at that time to be able to do so.

The first thing I learned was that I needed to get a remote keyboard to use with my laptop. Sitting as I had been with arms stretched out the way they were was an invitation to trouble. So we got a remote keyboard. And a lap desk to put it on.

Now, a caution about these things.

Mine rested on my lap, and had little bean bag pads to cushion the weight on my knees but I am like the princess in the fairy tale who tossed and turned all night due to one small pea having been placed under a pile of mattresses. I am very delicate. Yes, I am a big and strapping Amazon … but a delicate one. I bruise and break easily.

That lap desk really messed me up. After a few months I finally realized it wasn’t working for me. My knees were deteriorating — right where the little pads rested on them for hours each day. I told myself it must be alright, this was supposed to be protecting my body … but it wasn’t.

I finally replaced it with a clipboard, turned upside down on my lap, for my keyboard to rest on. It’s there right now while I’m typing. There’s room for my mouse beside the keyboard and it does the job without turning my knees to pulp.

I was still pretty gimpy and fragile, so we continued to research. We found a low price computer desk, on sale for $40, which would fit in our living room, and which had a drawer for the keyboard. Everything was at about the right height for me.

Unfortunately this ME/CFS-beaten body doesn’t handle change well, even good change. I had to get used to the new desk gradually if I didn’t want to end up crippled yet again.

So the first day I carried my laptop over to my new desk and worked there for 10 or 20 minutes. Then back to my more familiar setup for the rest of the day. Over a period of a week I was able to make the transition without too much trouble. Now I will sometimes work at my desk and sometimes in my easy chair, next to my husband.

I have learned that while ergonomics was less than useless for me when I was trapped in my bed, as I have been able to venture out further into the world I find that some of it actually has some bearing on me. Some of it has even done me some good.

Have you had your own run-ins with ergonomics? What was your experience?

'I was completely lost and in the dark before I found this website. I can never express what this place means to me.' Phoenix Rising forum member

{ 27 comments… add one }

  • alex3619 October 21, 2014, 6:33 pm

    Ergonomic thinking made a huge improvement in my situation in the late 80s. Its about reducing stress on the body, particularly muscles. Static stress on my muscle causes severe and prolonged muscle pain, but as I got worse it also contributed to my exhaustion. Trying to operate within an ergonomic framework helped a lot.

    I have a custom built computer desk. I use quality computer chairs. These help.

    One thing, if you see ergonomic kneeling chairs, where the weight is on your knees, be very skeptical. These caused me major knee pain that lasted over a decade.

  • Martial October 21, 2014, 8:20 pm

    Ergonomics is HUGE, I know perfectly healthy people who even complain of hip, knee, lower back pain and other things from just working desk jobs. When they all made the changes I always hear that all the aches, pain, mobility issues, musclular imbalances, and tightness go away.

    I use a stand up desk, and always make sure to have very good posture. Its also very important to take pro active steps against DVT and other blood clotting issues from extended rest periods and inactivity. This is something ergonomics can help with but also something to be preventive of.

  • Gingergrrl October 21, 2014, 8:31 pm

    @Jody Thanks for another great article! My husband uses a stand up desk which is better for his back pain (but would obviously never work for me who needs to sit!)

    I had to make many ergonomic changes and re-learn how to do things with my left arm (pre-CFS) when my right arm was injured by Levaquin in 2010.

    I recently got some stuff at Container Store to make my bathroom ergonomically easier for me so I no longer have to lift or carry things that are too heavy.

    I got one of those padded back rests with arms for when I am sitting in bed reading or typing on my phone which is much more comfortable than propping up a bunch of pillows.

    Not sure if this falls into the same category but a few months ago I got a shower chair and it was one of the best decisions I ever made and no longer in fear of the shower!

  • Valentijn October 22, 2014, 12:29 am

    I sit cross-legged on my bed in the living-room (can't go upstairs daily) with the front of my laptop resting on my legs and the laptop tilting backwards a little bit. My elbows rest on my knees or lower-thighs, and a I hunch forward a bit. But I have to lean forward a bit anyhow, otherwise I run into oxygen and heart rate issues. I move my legs around fairly often, sometimes stretching them out a bit with the laptop resting on them, or with either leg stretched out a bit to the side.

    Anyhow, resting my elbows on my legs is the important thing for me. Then my arms and wrists are at a comfortable angle and completely supported with my wrists resting on the front of the keyboard, and only my hand muscles are being used. As long as I slouch and support my arms, I don't get muscle soreness.

    I am very flexible though (easily fulfilling EDS hypermobility criteria), so these positions probably don't work for everyone.

  • beaker October 22, 2014, 1:34 am

    I first read the title as "Economics and ME/CFS: Have you hurt yourself w/o even knowing it. "

    Probably. I can't keep up w. even balancing my checking account. I'm on disability. Of course my economics are screwed. The comments in my head went on and on until I re read it a few more times and got it. =P

  • snowathlete October 22, 2014, 5:33 am

    I spend my days in that C shape Jody, I know exactly what you mean. I need to work out something better.

  • Hanna October 22, 2014, 6:36 am

    I truly understand the importance of ergonomics in order to avoid harming ourselves, but with an illness with multiple symptoms, we deal with situations where it is hard to find a solution. Example : I need to sleep 100% horizontaly to avoid sciatic pain. But if I don't use several pillows to elevate my upper body, then I suffer from serious dyspnea… So I end up with terrible backpain, because dyspnea isn't negociable.

  • liverock October 22, 2014, 6:48 am

    I use a desktop computer and the only ergonomic problem I had initially was an increasing stiff neck.
    At first I shrugged this off and performed a few head shakes but after a while I started getting increased heart rate and pressure feelings in the chest area.

    I had just bought a BP home monitor so checked my blood pressure the next time I had the problem, it was up to 170/90. Yikes!! Carted myself off to a local chiropractor who offered a free 45 minute body checkover to new clients. He said I didn't need any manipulation and just gave me a set of neck exercises to perform all for free! (see attachment). I wish they where all as good as this. 😎

    It seems its a common problem and people don't realise that the computer may be silently raising their blood pressure to dangerous levels.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/08/070802090711.htm

    It seems when the neck is held in one position such as reading an ebook for a lengthy time, that the problems are worst. My bad habit was holding onto the mouse even when I wasn't using it and not getting up to move around enough, but i've learned my lesson. A stiff neck is murder!

  • GracieJ October 22, 2014, 8:29 pm

    Definitely have issues. It seems near impossible to get comfortable in any position. Either my heart rate goes up, or my neck gets stiff, or body parts fall asleep. (Goofy face)

    I have had new problems I suspect are related to ergonomics or lack thereof, or related to repetitive stress. It makes me wonder if this syndrome makes one more prone to such issues, and that as hard as it is, frequent changes of position are wise. Sure hard, though, when you notice you have worn yourself out just reading in bed!

    On the good side… my own body is a constant source of learning in ways that benefit my massage clients. It is my own private laboratory of how pain patterns emerge and perpetuate, and what can be done to take it down.

  • Jody October 23, 2014, 2:01 pm
    alex3619

    Ergonomic thinking made a huge improvement in my situation in the late 80s. Its about reducing stress on the body, particularly muscles. Static stress on my muscle causes severe and prolonged muscle pain, but as I got worse it also contributed to my exhaustion. Trying to operate within an ergonomic framework helped a lot.

    I have a custom built computer desk. I use quality computer chairs. These help.

    One thing, if you see ergonomic kneeling chairs, where the weight is on your knees, be very skeptical. These caused me major knee pain that lasted over a decade.

    Sounds like you have a good setup, Alex.

    I agree, gotta be careful of those knees. When they are damaged life gets very limited.

  • Jody October 23, 2014, 2:12 pm
    Gingergrrl

    @Jody Thanks for another great article! My husband uses a stand up desk which is better for his back pain (but would obviously never work for me who needs to sit!)

    I had to make many ergonomic changes and re-learn how to do things with my left arm (pre-CFS) when my right arm was injured by Levaquin in 2010.

    I recently got some stuff at Container Store to make my bathroom ergonomically easier for me so I no longer have to lift or carry things that are too heavy.

    I got one of those padded back rests with arms for when I am sitting in bed reading or typing on my phone which is much more comfortable than propping up a bunch of pillows.

    Not sure if this falls into the same category but a few months ago I got a shower chair and it was one of the best decisions I ever made and no longer in fear of the shower!

    Glad you liked the article Gingergrrl.:)

    Sounds like a tough situation with your arms. My son Jesse who also has CFS got a chair-like backrest from his sister for his birthday (at my suggestions:) since he spends most of his day on his bed. It helps.

    Always good to be able to take a shower without hitting the floor head-first.:)

  • Jody October 23, 2014, 2:14 pm
    Valentijn

    I sit cross-legged on my bed in the living-room (can't go upstairs daily) with the front of my laptop resting on my legs and the laptop tilting backwards a little bit. My elbows rest on my knees or lower-thighs, and a I hunch forward a bit. But I have to lean forward a bit anyhow, otherwise I run into oxygen and heart rate issues. I move my legs around fairly often, sometimes stretching them out a bit with the laptop resting on them, or with either leg stretched out a bit to the side.

    Anyhow, resting my elbows on my legs is the important thing for me. Then my arms and wrists are at a comfortable angle and completely supported with my wrists resting on the front of the keyboard, and only my hand muscles are being used. As long as I slouch and support my arms, I don't get muscle soreness.

    I am very flexible though (easily fulfilling EDS hypermobility criteria), so these positions probably don't work for everyone.

    That's great that you can sit that way Valentijn.:) If I tried I would end up in a bad way. I would have trouble first of all, getting down to the floor because my knees are still rickety. Glad you can do it.:)

  • Valentijn October 23, 2014, 11:22 pm
    Jody

    That's great that you can sit that way Valentijn.:) If I tried I would end up in a bad way. I would have trouble first of all, getting down to the floor because my knees are still rickety. Glad you can do it.:)

    Oh, I sit that way on my bed in the living room (up on a cheap ikea bed frame), not on the floor. I have a lot of trouble with the floor now too 😛

  • Jody October 24, 2014, 5:01 pm
    beaker

    I first read the title as "Economics and ME/CFS: Have you hurt yourself w/o even knowing it. "

    Probably. I can't keep up w. even balancing my checking account. I'm on disability. Of course my economics are screwed. The comments in my head went on and on until I re read it a few more times and got it. =P

    lol Beaker

    That would be a great topic for an article.:) I'm sure all of us could speak volumes on it.

  • Jody October 24, 2014, 5:01 pm
    snowathlete

    I spend my days in that C shape Jody, I know exactly what you mean. I need to work out something better.

    It's an ongoing challenge, snowathlete. Good luck with it.:)

  • Jody October 24, 2014, 5:02 pm
    Hanna

    I truly understand the importance of ergonomics in order to avoid harming ourselves, but with an illness with multiple symptoms, we deal with situations where it is hard to find a solution. Example : I need to sleep 100% horizontaly to avoid sciatic pain. But if I don't use several pillows to elevate my upper body, then I suffer from serious dyspnea… So I end up with terrible backpain, because dyspnea isn't negociable.

    Yup, Hanna,

    I know what you're talking about. For those of us who have to stay in bed all day long, ergonomics can only offer so much.

  • Jody October 24, 2014, 5:05 pm
    liverock

    I use a desktop computer and the only ergonomic problem I had initially was an increasing stiff neck.
    At first I shrugged this off and performed a few head shakes but after a while I started getting increased heart rate and pressure feelings in the chest area.

    I had just bought a BP home monitor so checked my blood pressure the next time I had the problem, it was up to 170/90. Yikes!! Carted myself off to a local chiropractor who offered a free 45 minute body checkover to new clients. He said I didn't need any manipulation and just gave me a set of neck exercises to perform all for free! (see attachment). I wish they where all as good as this. 😎

    It seems its a common problem and people don't realise that the computer may be silently raising their blood pressure to dangerous levels.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/08/070802090711.htm

    It seems when the neck is held in one position such as reading an ebook for a lengthy time, that the problems are worst. My bad habit was holding onto the mouse even when I wasn't using it and not getting up to move around enough, but i've learned my lesson. A stiff neck is murder!

    Liverock,

    That's amazing that you didn't need an adjustment, not just once but many times. Very good.:)

    Good to know about the blood pressure thing. I didn't know that.

    I had to pay attention to my unconscious habitual habits too, switching things up as much as possible. Holding onto the mouse when I wasn't using it is an ongoing one for me. So is getting up and walking around after sitting for a long time at the computer. Movement, for those of us able to do it, can make a lot of difference.

  • Jody October 24, 2014, 5:07 pm
    GracieJ

    Definitely have issues. It seems near impossible to get comfortable in any position. Either my heart rate goes up, or my neck gets stiff, or body parts fall asleep. (Goofy face)

    I have had new problems I suspect are related to ergonomics or lack thereof, or related to repetitive stress. It makes me wonder if this syndrome makes one more prone to such issues, and that as hard as it is, frequent changes of position are wise. Sure hard, though, when you notice you have worn yourself out just reading in bed!

    On the good side… my own body is a constant source of learning in ways that benefit my massage clients. It is my own private laboratory of how pain patterns emerge and perpetuate, and what can be done to take it down.

    GracieJ,

    You've got some big challenges to contend with, trying to find just the right positions where you can be at all comfortable.

    Your personal laboratory no doubt teaches you a lot about the idiosyncracies of all the bodies out there.

  • Jody October 24, 2014, 5:08 pm
    Valentijn

    Oh, I sit that way on my bed in the living room (up on a cheap ikea bed frame), not on the floor. I have a lot of trouble with the floor now too :p

    I couldn't even maintain that sitting on my bed, after only a few minutes I find I need support behind my back.

  • Dr.Patient October 26, 2014, 12:42 pm

    I've learned one thing. Push or drag, don't lift.

  • Valentijn October 26, 2014, 1:26 pm
    Dr.Patient

    I've learned one thing. Push or drag, don't lift.

    And never forget: delegate 😀

  • Gingergrrl October 26, 2014, 5:38 pm
    Dr.Patient

    I've learned one thing. Push or drag, don't lift.

    And never lift anything over your head. That is the absolute worst #1 trigger for me and why I can no longer use a hairdryer.

  • caledonia November 3, 2014, 4:05 pm

    Ergonomics and preventing repetitive strain were important when I worked on the computer a lot as a graphic designer. They're even more important now. Somehow ME/CFS makes things worse.

    Besides having things set up right, I've learned a couple of quick stretches that help maintain things. It's pretty hard to describe the arm/wrist stretches in words, but it basically entails stretching them the opposite way you usually have them.

    The other is to do the yoga move called the Cobra to stretch that C shape out the other way. I do it a couple times a week (laying on the comfy bed, not the floor), otherwise I start getting lower back pain. I used to have to go to the chiro all the time, now doing the Cobra is all I need. It's saved me a bunch of money not to mention time and energy.

  • antares4141 December 9, 2014, 7:27 pm

    I have problems sitting at a computer in the typing position. A lot of it i suspect is from a dislocated hip back in 1989. Got two screws in the socket which was fractured and the ball had a fracture also on the non weight bearing part. So nothing had to be done with it. My left leg will sometimes get numb & fall asleep. The left check just hurts. And the wired thing is if I sit too long like this my hop will hurt when I walk on it. Feels like a bone on bone type pain but only after I sit too long. Low back problems too. From sitting or standing too long. Fortunately I got a tablet so this allows me to brake up my computer time between the laptop and the tablet. Just a small amount of time 10% is spent in the conventional desktop position. Some is spent on my knees at the desk (small table by bed) with the laptop. Some is spent with the laptop in my lap on the bed with a pile of blankets and pillows wadded up against the wall so I can sit that way for a while. When my back gets sore enough I lay the wad of blankets and pillows in the middle of my bed and lay on my stomach to try to undo all the compression from all the sitting. Laying that way is great but time consuming if you want any measurable decompression you need to apply traction to you back. I do this by wearing a robust belt loos enough that I can fit my hands partially insid my pants sorta on the front top part of my pelvis. I push down against my pelvis while at the same time trying to rotate the top part of it up. The belt holds my hands firmly against my hips giving me all the traction I need to put forty or fifty pounds of downward force on my hips. When my back hurts bad, the disks are compressed and I will here and feel a pop or two. I can't even begin to describe the amount of relieve this gives me. I would probably need pain killers if I didn't do this. The reason I arch the back by piling the blankets in the bed and laying on my stomach on top of them is the disk will almost slip back unto the uncompressed state by themselves. They tend to hang otherwise. That's also the reason I try to rotate the hips as I apply the downward force. I also do two isometric exercises that pull down on the disks in a way that eeseem to relive pressure. One lay on either side bring your knee up to your chest hold it with your hands and try to straighten it out. The other is to do the same but hold the ball of your foot and try to rotate your ankle. I had some really bad repetitive motion issues with mice and switched to a Logitech m570 trackball and love it. Dont use mice for anything anymore. It's great for in bed also cause you don't need a surface in order to opperate it. Also had some serious rotator cuf issues that were so bad if I were to pick up a lite object and hold it out away from my body the shoulder would pop and there would be mild sharp like pain. This all went away and I'm not sure if it's due solely to the trackball or in some part also to my switching to distiller warter. Been doing this for over two years now I guess and it seemed to help a lot. Water here in S. Central newmexico is very rich in calcium and probably some other minerals. I think it was poisoning me. I now sometimes drink gator aid just to make sure I am getting enough electrolytes.

  • garyfritz April 15, 2015, 11:03 am

    I have a stand-up desk but I found I can't stand very long. Walking is OK, but standing in one place is murder on my hips and knees.

    So I tried an experiment. I built a simple frame out of 2×2's that goes over my recliner and holds my 24" monitor above the recliner, facing down. I can lie down on the recliner and look up at the monitor. Then I used an old split keyboard I had, mounting each half of the keyboard on each armrest. I used a mouse but a touchpad would be even better.

    It looks like a Rube Goldberg setup but it really works very well.

    The recliner supports my entire body, making it very low-stress on all joints. One of those fancy "zero-gravity" chairs would be even better but the recliner works.
    Having the monitor directly over my face means I can look directly up at it, while I'm lying on my back, without any contortions.
    The split keyboard means I can have my arms and hands in a relaxed position at my sides. I mounted each half-keyboard at an angle, with the keys nearly vertical, so I didn't have to rotate or pronate my hands at all.

    Unfortunately I'm 6'4" and the recliner isn't comfortable for me to lie in for long periods. But if you have a good chair that supports you comfortably — or possibly a bed — this might be a great solution.

  • Martial April 15, 2015, 10:24 pm
    garyfritz

    I have a stand-up desk but I found I can't stand very long. Walking is OK, but standing in one place is murder on my hips and knees.

    So I tried an experiment. I built a simple frame out of 2×2's that goes over my recliner and holds my 24" monitor above the recliner, facing down. I can lie down on the recliner and look up at the monitor. Then I used an old split keyboard I had, mounting each half of the keyboard on each armrest. I used a mouse but a touchpad would be even better.

    It looks like a Rube Goldberg setup but it really works very well.

    The recliner supports my entire body, making it very low-stress on all joints. One of those fancy "zero-gravity" chairs would be even better but the recliner works.
    Having the monitor directly over my face means I can look directly up at it, while I'm lying on my back, without any contortions.
    The split keyboard means I can have my arms and hands in a relaxed position at my sides. I mounted each half-keyboard at an angle, with the keys nearly vertical, so I didn't have to rotate or pronate my hands at all.

    Unfortunately I'm 6'4" and the recliner isn't comfortable for me to lie in for long periods. But if you have a good chair that supports you comfortably — or possibly a bed — this might be a great solution.

    Sounds kind of like the ergonomic chair/desk set ups I usually see online.

    [​IMG]

  • garyfritz April 16, 2015, 7:16 am

    Very similar concept. But mine cost about ten bucks for lumber and bolts. A little cheaper than that fancy one you're showing there. 😀

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