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Before You Decide on Office Chair Arm Rest Adjustments

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Updated August 31, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Walk into any Office Depot or other large office supply store and you’ll likely find that only a few of the chairs on the sales floor have arm rests that adjust. Most have non-adjustable arm rests or no arm rests at all. Of the chairs with adjustments, almost all will have a height adjustment only. Chairs with width and pivot adjustments generally have to be ordered.

This doesn’t mean the width and pivot adjustments wouldn’t help keep neck pain away. Before you put money down on an office chair, do your neck a favor and understand all the adjustments and how to operate them.

Arm Rest Height

Height is the most common arm rest adjustment. It's a very useful adjustment - getting arm rests at a level that fits you may help avoid tension and pain in shoulder muscles such as the trapezius and levator scapula.

There are a couple of designs for arm rest height: the button and the dial (or knob) type. Fortunately both types are easy to work, to the point of being self-explanatory. All you need to do is spend just a couple of minutes exploring how they work and trying several levels until your arms feel well-supported.

Arm Rest Width

Adjusting the width of your arm rests may help relax and align your upper back. To achieve this, the arm-rest width should support your arms so that your elbows are directly under your shoulders. Not all office chairs have the width adjustment, though. And when they do, it will require use of a screwdriver and some patience. You should set the width when you first assemble the chair.

Arm Rest Pivot

Arm rests that pivot, which just means they turn in and out, may help you find the most comfortable position for your shoulders and neck. This is especially true if you have kyphosis. Kyphosis is a postural condition in which your upper back rounds forward. If you have kyphosis, most likely your shoulders round forward, too. Using the pivot feature may help you stretch the pec muscles in front and contract the rhomboids in back. This is one corrective exercise strategy a physical therapist might suggest for reversing kyphosis. So, why not let your office chair help you?

Non-Adjustable Armrests and the Armless Chair

Most office chairs sold at chain stores are either armless or have non-adjustable arm rests. If you decide on non-adjustable arm rests be sure they fit your frame. Sit in the chair and put your forearms on the supports and see how it feels to your neck and shoulders. Compare a few chairs. If the arm rests are too low, you may be able to add some foam to raise the height. (Just duct-tape them on.)

Task chairs are often armless. Armless chairs may allow you to move with a greater comfort level. But many people, myself included, need the support an arm rest gives in order to avoid fatiguing shoulders, back and neck.

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