6 Hacks for Your AS-Friendly Workspace

For people with ankylosing spondylitis, jobs can be a pain—the physical kind. These simple strategies can make life easier.

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

When you’re living with ankylosing spondylitis (AS), a chronic inflammatory form of arthritis that primarily affects the spine, sitting at a desk all day can make symptoms like joint pain worse—and therefore make it hard to do your job. In fact, according to a recent study presented at the American College of Rheumatology/Association of Rheumatology Health Professionals Annual Meeting, nearly three-fourths of people with AS have difficulty standing or sitting for long hours at work, and nearly half miss work due to their condition.

“Chronic pain is exacerbated by working in sedentary postures or awkward postures, or doing work activities that are highly repetitive,” explains Nikki Weiner, O.T.D., a licensed occupational therapist and certified ergonomic specialist in Pittsburgh, PA. If your work requires fixed postures and the same movements over and over (hello, typing), it may worsen your AS symptoms. Plus, she says, computer workstations aren’t naturally set up in the best way for our bodies—so making adjustments is a must when you have a chronic condition like AS.

To help you get started on making those changes, try these six hacks from experts to make your workspace and routine more AS-friendly.

Hack #1: Prioritize a Comfy Chair

If you’re working a job that requires you to sit all day, making that sitting more comfortable is a non-negotiable change for people with AS, says Terence Starz, M.D., a clinical professor of medicine and occupational therapy in the division of rheumatology and clinical immunology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pennsylvania.

Look for a chair with lumbar support that can be adjusted to your needs to make your workday less strenuous on your joints, says Weiner. “Make sure your chair can sit you in a variety of comfortable positions, whether upright or reclined,” she says. “If you can change to a semi-reclined position throughout the day, that will decrease the force of gravity on the spine.”

Having a chair with a headrest and adjustable armrests is also wise, per the Arthritis Foundation. Ideally, your upper and lower arms should make a right angle so your wrists can stay straight while you use your computer.

Hack #2: Consider a Standing Desk With Anti-Fatigue Mat

Even with the most comfortable chair on earth, sitting all day can still be uncomfortable. That’s where a standing desk can come in handy, says Weiner. “To change positions regularly, something like a sit-stand desk can be helpful so you can stand in short intervals while you work,” she explains. “I recommend an electric sit-stand desk instead of one that requires manual adjustments, as that can cause undue stress on the back.”

Positioning a cushy anti-fatigue mat ($58.99, Amazon) under your feet can help make the standing parts of your workday more comfortable, too, she says.

Hack #3: Protect Your Eyes When Working With Screens

AS mainly affects the spine, but it can affect other parts of the body, too. “A frequent problem I often treat in people with AS is inflammation in the eye,” explains Dr. Starz. That’s why the next key hack for your workday is to take regular screen breaks.

“Eye fatigue from screens could be especially problematic for AS patients, so take frequent screen breaks,” says Wiener. “A good guideline is the 20/20/20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look away from the screen at an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This basically helps your eye muscles relax because they are in a fixed viewing position all day long when looking at our screen.”

You can also try blue-light glasses ($16.95 and up, Zenni) and adjusting your computer screen under display settings to help with eye strain—but know that taking screen breaks will likely make the most impact, says Weiner.

Hack #4: Find the Right Position for Your Screen and Keyboard

“Properly positioning the computer screen and keyboard is important with AS,” says Dr. Starz. Your eyes should be level with the top of your computer screen—if you have to tilt your head to look up or down at your screen, it can put undue stress on the neck and back, says the Arthritis Foundation.

A keyboard tray (which can pull or slide out from underneath your desk) can also help you sit in optimal semi-reclined positions, Dr. Weiner says, so you’re not reaching so far from your body to type.

But what if you’re using a laptop? Often laptop screens will be too low, so you’ll need to raise your laptop to reach optimal eye level—you can use a stack of books or buy a laptop riser ($27.99, Amazon) for this purpose. When using a laptop, make sure you have an external keyboard so you can have the keyboard at the right height, too, says the Arthritis Foundation.

Hack #5: Don’t Stay Desk-Bound for Too Long

Taking frequent short breaks to move around is another easy but important hack for getting through the workday with AS symptoms. “Make sure you’re putting breaks into your schedule so you can stretch and loosen up your joints,” Dr. Starz urges. “When we’re inactive and there is inflammation present, you can get swelling, which is what causes stiffness. It really does impair the ability to do things, whether at work or home.”

That’s why it’s important to tune into those early signs of pain and change to a different position as soon as you notice that discomfort. Even a small adjustment in your position can make a difference, says Weiner. “Even if you’re just getting up for two minutes to grab a glass of water or let the dog out every 30 minutes, that adds up to getting better full-body circulation,” she says, explaining that movement helps deliver fresh, oxygenated blood throughout your body. “This is crucial to being able to maintain your work schedule with more comfort.”

If you’re able, switching up your work location throughout the day can be helpful, she adds. If you’re working from home, that might mean spending an hour or two of the day at the kitchen table or using a lap desk to work from the couch to get a break from your desk (just make sure to take your lumbar support pillow with you!) ($39.99, Purple). And if you’re working from an office, the same rules apply—try to move around to different locations if you can, such as working from the conference room or company cafeteria for an hour or two every day.

Hack #6: Practice Good Body Mechanics

So far, most of these hacks have been about modifying your work environment so you can function better within it. But being mindful of how you are using your body to interact with your environment is also important. “Pay attention to your body positioning,” Weiner says. “For example, aim for a neutral working posture, and practice a hip hinge [bending at the hips with a flat spine] instead of bending at the back when bending down or picking something up off the ground.”

Setting an alarm for every 30 minutes or so on your phone or computer as a reminder to check your posture can help you build this habit. Additionally, working one-on-one with an occupational or physical therapist can help you learn whether there are specific adjustments you can make to your body movements and posture to help reduce your AS pain symptoms, Weiner says.

The Bottom Line on Modifying Your Workday for AS

While some of these hacks may seem like simple changes, they can all add up to make a big impact on how you feel on a day-to-day basis at work with AS so that getting through the workday isn’t such a literal pain. Don’t hesitate to reach out to an occupational therapist who can make personalized recommendations to help address your unique challenges and make your workspace work for you and your AS.

“You might be able to do more than you feel is possible by simplifying your daily work, taking a different approach, or using different tools,” says Weiner. “The beauty of occupational therapy is [your OT can] help you increase life performance and think creatively to find solutions you may not be aware of.”

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com.