Armrests can help or hinder – find out why

We are often asked about how important armrests are. The market is cluttered and confused with mixed messages on this chair feature. You can buy chairs with highly adjustable armrests, and you can even buy armrests that attach to a work table. Are they helpful? Necessary? We have often found that people are happiest when their chair armrests are removed completely. If they are useful, why would that be? Let’s think through this issue.

armrest 1The most common reason that people request armrests (or better armrests) is to resolve discomfort in their arms, neck, or upper back. If the workstation requires a worker to hold the arms with the elbows away from the side of the body, for example with the elbows forward to type, or out to the side to mouse, then the muscles of the shoulders are working, and eventually they will fatigue. As shown in the photo at right, this often happens when the keyboard is too high.

armrest 2However, if it is possible for the worker to complete his/her work with the upper arms relaxed at the side of the body (as shown at right), I would suggest that s/he can probably maintain that posture almost indefinitely. Armrests are redundant in this case. Further, if the job requires a little bit of movement, such as occasionally moving the hands between the mouse, keyboard, number pad and (gasp!) pen/paper, then these small changes in posture are probably healthy. Add in an occasional stretch and this might even qualify as an “ideal job”. When we are asked to investigate whether armrests might be a solution, our first goal is ALWAYS to attempt to get the worker into a position where s/he can work with the shoulders relaxed, with the elbows resting against the side-seam of the shirt. This typically involves adjusting keyboard/mouse height, seat pan height, and forward reach, and eliminating obstacles such as armrests or wrist rests. If it’s possible to work with the elbows resting against the sides, this change is almost always sufficient to relieve the worker’s discomfort, and s/he is happy to proceed without armrests.

Armrests can be potentially harmful, in some situations:

  • armrest 3They may encourage the worker to abduct the shoulders (elbows away from the sides). The forearms then approach the keyboard on an angle, which requires the wrist to bend in order to type. This type of wrist bending can increase the risk of tendonitis.
  • They may create pressure on the soft tissues of the forearm and elbow, particularly if they are hard, or if they are used to rest an elbow in a “thinking” posture.
  • They may encourage the worker to rest the entire forearm on the armrest, and operate the mouse or keyboard by wrist and finger movement alone (with a “windshield wiper” action). This posture also can be associated with tendonitis.
  • IMG_20150720_081011They may force the worker to sit further away from the work, and reach to type and mouse, such that the shoulders are flexed (elbows forward from sides). This posture does not require muscle effort while the arms rest on the armrests, but the muscles do have to work much harder every time the hands move between positions (i.e. keyboard to mouse). To be useful as a “rest”, the worker typically adjusts the armrest to elbow height. However, this is the same height as the keyboard/mouse surface, as shown above. The armrests often strike the work surface when the worker attempts to tuck the chair in close to sit in a “good” position; by the end of the day, the worker has given up trying to sit close to the work, and leans, perches or slouches in the chair.

armrest 4However, we do occasionally encounter situations where it is not possible to get a worker into this “ideal” posture. For example, a pregnant or obese worker often cannot sit close enough to a keyboard to work with the upper arms close to the body (as shown at right; this worker can’t sit closer to the keyboard, but might be able to adjust the armrests to take some of the weight of the arms). Sometimes, workstation constraints prevent us from bringing the work close. For example, dental hygienists have to work in the patient’s mouth, and it’s not possible to position the patient’s head between the hygienist’s body and hands; s/he will always be required to reach forward and/or upward. We concede, in these situations, that there is a place for armrests. It’s better to support the weight of the arms on an armrest than to suffer a prolonged static muscle exertion while holding the arms in a raised position. Similarly, if armrests are causing no harm, we wouldn’t have them removed. Many people, particularly those with hip or knee problems, need armrests to assist them with getting in and out of a chair.

If someone is telling you that you should get armrests, or you should use the ones you have while you type, think twice. Take a close look at your working posture before you decide!