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Exercise May Beat Ergonomics for Easing Work-Related Pain, Study Shows

July 26, 2006 -- If your upper body aches at the end of the workday, exercise may be the way to ease your soreness.

In fact, exercise might help more than some more expensive ergonomic interventions, Dutch researchers note in The Cochrane Library.

Researcher Arianne Verhagen, PhD, MSc, a physiotherapist at Erasmus University Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and her team reviewed 21 studies on work-related arm, neck, and shoulder complaints. The studies included 2,110 patients.

"On the whole, I give exercises the benefit of the doubt, but technically not all studies show positive results," Verhagen tells WebMD, in an email.

The Ergonomics Alternative

Ergonomics has for decades been considered a solution to such workplace problems. It's the way your physical environment -- such as your work space or computer -- interacts with your body.

For instance, your computer keyboard may be placed at an angle that strains your wrists. Or maybe you hunch over your desk, or wedge your phone between your ear and shoulder.

Doing that for hours, day after day, year after year, may create pain in the back, shoulders, or wrists. Ergonomic interventions are intended to make your work space and equipment better suit your activities. Some computer keyboards and chairs are designed with proper ergonomics in mind.

What Works?

The reviewers checked the studies' data on ergonomics, exercises, massage, and other methods of easing work-related upper body pain.

Exercise was covered in 14 studies and included:

  • Strength exercises
  • Endurance exercises
  • A type of stretching called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF)
  • Feldenkrais therapy, a type of gentle bodywork that increases flexibility and coordination

Most of the exercise studies showed beneficial results, but not all, Verhagen says. No particular exercise type stood out as being best.

But, "The benefit of [expensive] ergonomic interventions in the workplace is not clearly demonstrated," Verhagen's team writes.

The researchers aren't promising exercise will fix work-related upper body pain. They're also not dismissing ergonomic strategies.

The studies' methods varied and weren't all of top-notch quality, so some of the evidence is "limited," they note.

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