Pamela B. Harrell, O.T.R., C.H.T.
We spend a great part of our lives sitting in chairs. Many of us work at a job that requires us to sit all day, whether we are typing at a computer, answering a telephone, or driving a forklift. We sit to eat, drive, watch television, surf the Internet, and read. We often sit while socializing with friends, listening to music, and using many of the electronic devices so prevalent in our lives today. It would make sense, then, for the chairs we sit in to provide comfort and support. But too many of us consign ourselves to chairs that make us uncomfortable and may even be adding to or creating problems in our muscles and joints. What follows is a guide to chairs and how to select a chair that is right for you.
There are a variety of health and lifestyle problems associated with chairs that are not properly supportive. For example, a chair that is too low places undue stress on the joints of the legs, causing pain and stiffness while you’re sitting and making it difficult for you to get out of the chair, especially if your muscles are weak. A chair that is too high will not allow your feet to touch the floor, putting excess stress on the spine and the nerves in the legs and possibly leading to numbness, tingling, and pain.
When you are sitting, the disks in your spine sustain up to twice the amount of stress put on them when you are standing. Increased stress on the spinal disks may lead to poor posture, and this in turn can contribute to chronic pain not only in the neck and back but also in the arms and legs. The nerves in your extremities are also affected by poor spinal posture. Pressure on certain nerve areas in the arms and legs can lead to nerve pain or “pins and needles” feelings.
All these problems are made worse by the presence of arthritis in the joints. The stiffness and soreness associated with various forms of arthritis can make sitting in a chair particularly uncomfortable. By helping to support your body, a good chair can help control arthritis pain by promoting good posture and keeping muscles and joints in their natural positions. And if you are more comfortable while sitting, you may find yourself better able to relax and participate in activities with your family and friends.
It is important to note that there is no one perfect chair for everyone, as each person has his or her own unique physical attributes. A chair that is perfect for your spouse or best friend may not be perfect for you. A chair that was once perfect for your body may not be perfect anymore if your size or your movement abilities have changed. The way to find the chair that’s right for you is to keep in mind several important factors and then, when you find a likely chair, to try it out for a length of time before you buy it. The following are the factors you need to consider: the seat, the backrest, the armrests, the adjustability features, and the quality of the chair’s construction and materials.
The seat is probably the most important factor to consider when selecting your chair. The seat should be deep enough to support the length of your upper legs while still allowing your back to rest comfortably on the backrest. If the seat is too deep, it may put pressure on the nerves and blood vessels in the back of your knees, creating circulation and nerve problems. A seat that is too deep can also make getting up very difficult. On the other hand, a seat that is too shallow will not support your legs properly and may lead to poor posture and the problems associated with it.
Choose a seat that has a firm and supportive cushion. A firm seat is much easier to get out of and provides better support for the hips and back. A seat that is too firm, however, can put pressure on bony areas and nerves. Conversely, a seat that is too soft or saggy allows you to sit in ways that may not properly support joints with arthritis and that may also make rising from the chair more difficult.
It is also important that your seat not be too narrow. It should allow plenty of room for you to comfortably change positions in the chair. Sitting still for long periods of time can cause stiffness in the legs and back. To combat this stiffness, your chair should be roomy enough for you to move around and change the position of your joints.
The height of the seat can affect your posture, the support to your joints, and the relative ease or difficulty of sitting down in or standing up from the chair. The chair should be of a height that lets you place your bare feet flat on the floor. Keeping your feet on the floor ensures that your back is properly supported and that you do not develop circulation problems, often felt as “pins and needles,” in your feet and lower legs. Your knees should be at hip height or one to two inches higher than your hips to reduce the load on your low back. But make sure that the chair is not too low. That could make standing up very difficult. The stress and strain of getting out of a low chair can discourage some people from getting up at all, prompting further health problems. In some cases, where a chair is causing great discomfort, a higher chair can make all the difference.
Last Reviewed on August 8, 2012
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