Most of us tend to ignore armrests when choosing an office chair. Instead, we prefer to focus on areas that give comfort and support, like the backrest and seat of the chair. But even though office chair armrests go largely unnoticed, they’re also surprisingly controversial.
Do they offer additional arm support or could they contribute to conditions like tendonitis?
We've taken a closer look at the pros and cons of office chair armrests, and our conclusions may not be quite what you’d expect…
First, let's explore the reasons why you should consider armrests for your office chair:
Did you know that the arms and hands comprise around 12% of your total body weight? Armrests can help to reduce the strain by placing your arms and hands in the correct, relaxed position.
Similarly, well-configured office chair armrests can help to reduce the load on the spine and stop you from slouching. In turn, this can help to prevent back problems – which many DSE workers are prone to.
By providing support for the shoulders, arms, hands and upper body, armrests can improve overall comfort and support posture stabilisation.
A study by the Journal of Physical Therapy Science claims that using armrests can help relax the deltoid and upper trapezius muscles that contribute to neck and back pain. Again, these issues are common in people who use display screen equipment (DSE) for prolonged amounts of time each day.
Armrests provide much-needed support when getting out of a chair, particularly for older people with joint problems. In addition, the leverage provided by armrests significantly reduces the force required by the knees and hips.
While the arguments for office chair armrests seem pretty conclusive, there are downsides to consider. In some situations, they can even be harmful to an ideal ergonomic work environment.
Over-wide armrests often force the elbows to wing out to the side, which means you have to bend your wrists to use your keyboard. Alternatively, you may rest the entire forearm on the armrest and operate the mouse in windshield wiper action. Both positions can lead to tendonitis.
Poorly configured armrests can also force you to pivot forward, with your elbows on the armrests. This moves you out of the neutral sitting position, which is optimum for upper body support.
Do your office chair armrests prevent you from reaching the desk? If so, you may be forced to slouch forward to use a mouse or keyboard. It might also mean you have to sit higher or lower than is ideal, just so you can fit the chair armrests under or over the desk.
Using an armrest can often create pressure in the soft tissues of the elbow and arm. As a result, it may lead to ulnar nerve damage (Cubital tunnel syndrome). Ulnar nerve damage is a relatively common desk injury that causes pain, numbness or tingling in the little finger and side of the hand.
Clearly, there are pros and cons to using office chair armrests. However, if you decide to opt for them, look for the following ergonomic features.
Ensuring your armrests are height adjustable will allow you to access your workspace easily. For example, your armrests should be within a height range that lets you adjust them to be level with the desk height or low enough to slide underneath.
Length adjustable armrests adapt to your forearms allowing for a range of postures. However, they should be short enough that your elbows make contact with the armrests when your upper arms are at desk height and your shoulders are relaxed. Armrests shouldn't impede you from getting close to the desk.
Is the problem persisting? Try reversing the position of your armrests – this will make them shorter so they don’t inhibit your work.
Width-adjustable armrests allow your elbows to sit directly beneath your shoulders to alleviate postural problems.
At WorkHappy, we believe correctly adjusted, well-configured armrests can be helpful. But in the vast majority of cases, office chair armrests can create more problems than they solve. The correct workstation set-up can be very subjective – a chair that works best for you may not be suitable for a colleague.
A DSE assessment will look at your desk, chair, and screen configuration and help you find the best office chair option for you – whether this involves armrests or not.
If you’re an employer who’s unsure whether your team's office chairs have the right armrests, get in touch with the Workhappy team to arrange a DSE assessment. We offer in-person and virtual DSE assessments, alongside online self-assessments so all your team members can work comfortably and safely.