Disclaimer: The information provided here is made available for the sole purpose of providing general information about ergonomics. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any injuries, illnesses, or conditions, nor should it be interpreted as such. If you are experiencing pain, excessive fatigue, or other health issues, consult a medical professional. The information provided by the author and contained in this article does not serve or purport to serve as a substitute for the advice of a qualified practitioner.
The bad news about gaming is this: the more time you spend at any activity that requires you to do the same movements repeatedly, especially small and precise movements, the more likely you are to get injured. It’s a simple numbers game.
The good news is that it doesn’t take much to make you less likely to get injured. Even better, it doesn’t cost much to make you less likely to get injured. While every individual will have slight variations in the setup that works best for them, there are five simple components you can adjust that generally promote better body positioning.
Your keyboard should sit on a surface about 2-3 inches above your knees, and a pull-out drawer or shelf on your desk is absolutely ideal for that. For an easy reference point, the “g” and “h” keys should be right in line with your bellybutton. Make sure your keys are easy to press: having to hit your keys hard to make them respond puts far too much stress on the tendons of the small muscles of your hands and fingers.
When it comes whether or not your keyboard should have wrists rests, consider the following: keyboards with wrist rests increase pressure on the carpal tunnel up to 200% greater than keyboards without, which can lead to significant inflammation and nerve compression. If you absolutely HAVE to have something there for support, position it so that the base of your palm rests on it rather than your wrists. To further relieve stress on your wrists and keep them in a relaxed, neutral position, have good arm support (see item #4, Your Chair) and set up your keyboard so that it is angled down and away from you. Consider propping it so that the near side of your keyboard is about an inch or two higher than the far side of your keyboard. As usual, tweak it to find what’s most comfortable for you.
Just like your keyboard, your mouse should be on a surface about 2-3 inches above your knees. It should be directly in front of your shoulder or very slightly outside; you shouldn’t have to reach out in order to move it. The motion to control your mouse should come from the elbow, not from the wrist.
Optimal visual range is within about 1-2 feet away from your face, with the center of the monitor about 15-30 degrees below your line of sight. You want to avoid hunching to look down at a screen, craning to look up at a screen, or straining to focus on a screen that’s too far away or too close. If you’re a taller individual, consider stacking books or a small box under your monitor to get it to the best height for you. Additionally, consider f.lux–it’s a program that automatically adjusts the amount of blue light emitted from your screen to match your circadian rhythms and reduce eyestrain.
Picking the right chair can be tricky. There are plenty of potential pitfalls: too skinny, and it puts pressure on your shoulderblades; too wide, you’ll find yourself twisted or tilted; too tall, you’ll end up hunching forward to avoid bumping your head; too short, and you won’t get the full back support you need. You could get a custom ergonomic gaming chair, but those are pretty expensive and not in most budgets. However, it matters less that you have the ideal “ergonomic” chair and matters more than whatever chair you have is comfortable, gives you adequate support, and is appropriate for your size. There are a couple of general criteria your chair should meet that will let you achieve those three things.
First, armrests are a must–supporting your forearms and elbows reduces stress on your shoulders, upper back, and neck.
Second, your chair should be at a height that allows you to meet the suggestions regarding monitor height and mouse/keyboard position while still allowing you to have both feet on the floor with your knees bent to whatever extent is comfortable to you (usually between 90-120 degrees). If you’re on the shorter side, this is quite a tall order for your chair. Luckily, the fix is pretty easy–try placing a stool, a box, or one of those textbooks you bought for $200 that the campus bookstore will only give you $3.75 on buyback under your feet. This takes a significant amount of stress off of your back.
Third, you’ll need good lumbar support. If your chair doesn’t have good lumbar support, it’s easy enough to make your own with a small pillow or rolled/folded towel. Adjust to whatever is comfortable.
Finally, if you have multiple monitors or a large desk, you’ll want a chair that rolls, swivels, or does both; this prevents unnecessary twisting strain on your spine.
There’s a fairly popular study by Wilkes et al (1999) found that sitting at 90 degrees was the position of most compressive stress on the spine, which increases the pressure on the discs between your vertebrae. From this, a lot of people have concluded that ideal posture involves leaning back. However, that doesn’t take into account that other positions will put stresses on other structures that support your spine–ligaments and muscles.
What’s best, in fact, is to start at 90 degrees, find your neutral posture, and then adjust your chair to support that. “Neutral posture” is what’s briefly demonstrated in the gif above: feet planted, pelvis not tilted, lower back in slight extension, chest elevated, and head over your shoulders. In all likelihood, your neutral posture will be 90 degrees or greater; thus the suggestion to start at 90.
When you sit, you want your core engaged–it keeps you from slumping. “Engaging your core” here means keeping some amount of tension or contraction in your abdominal and low back muscles. If you’re having a hard time picturing that, imagine your standard WWE championship belt: if the muscles are covered by that belt, those are muscles you want to engage while sitting. You don’t have to suck in your gut or keep your back rigid; just keep enough tension in those muscles that you don’t slide down in your chair.
Overall, your setup should allow you to be comfortable: head and back supported, shoulders relaxed, arms supported, wrists in neutral (not too bent in any direction–you should be able to make a straight line from your elbows to your fingertips), knees bent, feet on the floor.
Remember: your setup will be unique to you, based on your size, equipment, and available space. You don’t have to have “perfect” ergonomics at all times. But if you can make a few small changes to your arrangement, you’ll find yourself in a much better position to keep your gaming pain-free.
For pain, injuries, or any serious concerns, speak to a medical professional. You can find licensed physical therapists in your area through the APTA and certified hand specialists through CHT. However, for general non-diagnostic advice, I am happy to respond to questions directed to @CaitMcGeePT on Twitter or CaitMcGeePT@gmail.co