The Office Chair: To Armrest or Not To Armrest
By Kirsty Angerer, The Travelling Ergonomist on 3rd Jun 2019
Choosing to have armrests or not on an office chair has been a wide discussion for many years and there are really two schools of thought. The first being that we should use armrests as they support our upper limbs and reduce the amount of load down to our lower back when in a seated posture. The second being that we should not use armrests as they create risk factors such as shoulder shrugging, contact stress on the forearm and leaning postures.
I would say both of these schools of thought are correct so the best answer to the question as to whether we should we have armrests on our office chair is that it depends! Let me build on this thought process and discuss a few scenarios. There are many, but these are the most common in my experience.
As we have already established in this blog series, the standard desk height of 720mm correlates to the seated elbow height of a 6’2” male which means those of us who are not that tall having to adjust ourselves to fit to the workstation. What that also means is that the majority of us are sitting too low in our chairs in relation to our desk.
This causes shoulder shrugging and, in this posture, having armrests that support your arms feels quite comfortable because you are not having to hold your arms up to type and mouse. This makes sense. What you may not have considered, though, is that the armrests are supporting your arms and shoulders in a poor posture. So, whilst you may feel supported, you are in fact holding this shoulder shrugging posture throughout the day. This, creates tension across the neck and shoulders and is a potential risk factor for developing a musculoskeletal disorder.
This is a training issue. You have not been educated about how to set up your workstation correctly. When you are seated at the correct height (elbows at desk height), you will find little need to use armrests, other than for a rest break or getting in and out of the chair.
Ok, so let us say that you are actually at the correct height and your natural elbow position is the same height as the desk top. Great. Your shoulders are down and relaxed and elbows by your side. You still feel, though, that it would be nice to have some additional support from armrests.
One of the issues with this is that many people do not know at what height to position their armrests. They typically end up placing them too high, again causing shoulder shrugging. The other issue might be that your two armrests are set at different heights, causing you to lean to one side throughout the day. What tends to happen here is contact stress on the forearm because you are putting a lot of weight on that one side and forcing your spine and pelvis to be misaligned. This could cause lower back discomfort.
Once again, this is merely a training issue. You just need to be educated properly on how to use armrests, where to position them and how long to use them for. Your armrests are the last things you should adjust on your chair. You should first start by adjusting the height of your chair, followed by the seat depth. You then adjust the lumbar or backrest height and angle. Once these have been adjusted, you can adjust your armrests. The armrests should be positioned at your natural elbow position. When they are properly set, your armrests should sit just under your elbows when your hands are in your lap.
The last scenario might be that you do know how to adjust yourself properly at the workstation. Your chair is comfortable, you are at the right height and your tools are close to you. You now want to use your armrests for some support. The problem is that they are too big so you cannot get close enough to your work tools on the desk. Or perhaps they are positioned too wide so you cannot reach them properly. Or perhaps they have little to no adjustment and are obstructing you from doing your work in an appropriate posture.
This is, in fact, a design issue and is probably the biggest design flaw on office chairs to date. When you are looking for an office chair with armrests, you should consider where the armrests are positioned on the chair, how big the armrests are, how wide they are set and what adjustments they have. You should be able to sit in your chair and adjust the armrests at the very least in height, in width and they should be ideally positioned near the back of the chair or on the backrest of the chair. If you think about it, our arms are attached to our back. It therefore makes sense for the armrests to be designed in the same position. You also want to make sure you can get close to your desk without the armrests obstructing you.
Ideally, armrests should be used intermittently throughout the day. The clue is in the name. They are an arm…rest so they should be used that way. If you are set up at the correct height and your workstation is well adjusted then you should merely use your armrests as a rest break when taking a phone call, reading a document or talking to a colleague.
The only time I would advise raising the armrests is when you are using a tablet or mobile phone as this will help support your arms and bring the devices closer to your eyes. This will to help avoid discomfort or injury to your neck. I would suggest only doing this for a few minutes at a time.
Making sure the stability of your armrests is good is also important as you may want to use them to get in and out of your office chair. This is particularly helpful if you suffer with lower back discomfort. When you get in and out of a chair without support you can add additional load to the lower back which is not what you want when you are already suffering with discomfort in this area.
Make sure the design of the armrests is appropriate and encourages neutral postures
Set them up at the correct height for the task you are doing
Use them for rest breaks or getting in and out of the chair (providing you are not suffering with a more serious injury whereby the use of armrests may be helpful for a longer period)
How we can help at Osmond Ergonomics
The selection of an appropriate chair ensures physical comfort and is essential in the prevention and management of musculoskeletal pain and injury.
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Kirsty Angerer, The Travelling Ergonomist
Kirsty Angerer is a Certified Professional Ergonomist, Frequent Flyer, Workplace Wellness Advocate, Fitwel Ambassador, and Self-Confessed Ergonomics Nerd. She has worked in the areas of ergonomic program development and training for managers and employees for quite some time, now with a global client base. Travelling the world regularly, she strives to make it a more healthy and comfortable place.
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