Help me not hate my new Aeron chair
October 16, 2012 12:20 PM   Subscribe

Due to long-standing back/shoulder/neck pain, I received an Aeron chair at work a couple of months ago. It has helped in one way (namely, the armrests can be adjusted lower than any other chair I've had, which has helped my shoulders) but otherwise has completely aggravated my lower and mid-back pain. Help me figure out a hack so that I can actually sit at my desk for longer than 10 minutes at a time without going nuts.

I know I'm supposed to love this chair, but I don't (except for the aforementioned super-low armrest feature to accommodate my long arms). I think the problem is a combination of the damn mesh seat (no support for my bony ass) and lack of back support/cushioning (I have the model with the PostureFit -- or, as I like to call it, LackOfPostureFit). No matter how I adjust the height, tilt, tension, etc., my back inevitably winds up feeling extremely tight, and is occasionally in spasm by the time I leave for the day.

I have a small lumbar support cushion attached to the chair right now, which helps a little... but one of my problems (according to my physical therapist) is that I actually tend to overarch my lower back, so too much cushioning in that area exacerbates that. I have tried a wedge seat cushion, but it absolutely doesn't work for the seat of this chair (it fits fine on my desk chair at home). Does anyone have any experience with the Stratta cushion for Aeron chairs? At that price, I want to make sure it's likely to help before I cough up the money (or try to convince work to pay for it).

A few other points: I do have an ergonomic keyboard and a keyboard tray that are about as good as I'm going to get, so that's probably not an area that can be further improved at this point. There's not anyone at work who's an ergonomic expert to help me; the facilities guy who delivered the chair was helpful in terms of showing me how to adjust the seat, but beyond that is not really his area of expertise. (Are there freelance ergonomic consultants who you can hire for an hour to come in and evaluate this sort of thing?)

I would love an entirely different chair (my eye is on the Steelcase Leap), but I have strong doubts that work will cough up for one. (Does anyone have experience buying a chair like this from an unauthorized dealer? I see them here at about 50% of the retail price, and at this point I'm half-tempted to buy one myself and bring it in to my office, though part of me doesn't think I should have to do this on my dime.)
posted by scody to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Could your PT help with setting up the chair or recommending one that will be good for the problems you have? I personally don't seem to get on with Aeron chairs - I used one for a while until I realised it was throwing my lower back out and I went back to a standard cheap office chair.
posted by crocomancer at 12:25 PM on October 16, 2012

May or may not work for anyone else: but when I had intractable lower back pain from sitting long periods, I began carrying a lightweight fleece jacket to use as a lumbar roll. Only I don't roll it; I stuff it behind my lower back wherever I sit, and because it's just a wad of cloth, it is infinitely adjustable. Back support tailored to any chair, any position.

I no longer have any back problems, I just have a "security blanket" I take everywhere.
posted by wjm at 12:35 PM on October 16, 2012

How about a standing desk? That did an amazing job reducing my upper back/lower neck pain. I did it on the cheap with an IKEA desk.
posted by chiefthe at 12:35 PM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Everyone seems to default to the Aeron as "the ergo chair", but there are so many choices. HON makes the Ceres and Unanimous chairs, which are fully adjustable, meant for all-day use, and provide a very good fit. Perhaps more important than the chair itself is knowing how to properly adjust everything. This is something that your PT can probably help you with, so that as you're sitting in the chair, you're not only comfortable, but your posture is in proper ergonomic form as well.

As for your keyboard tray, if you don't have one already, look into getting a Workrite adjustable keyboard tray. Slide-in/out (and lock), adjustable positive or negative tilt, rotation, while still being rock steady. They're not cheap, but we sell a lot of them for L&I placements.

Generally, yes, your employer is not obligated to provide you with the furniture of your choice, but they ought to be interested in keeping their employees comfortable, healthy, and productive.

As chiefthe mentioned, you may consider a standing desk, too. I switched about two years ago and the difference has been amazing. I got a nice anti-fatigue mat for the floor, and my back pain has mostly disappeared.
posted by xedrik at 12:37 PM on October 16, 2012

Response by poster: crocomancer: the problem (for me) with cheap office chairs is largely the armrests. Regular armrests can never be lowered far enough for my arms, so I'm hunching my shoulders for eight hours, but being on the computer all day without any armrests strains my neck. My PT (who I haven't seen for a few weeks, due to scheduling problems) did say that Aeron chairs can often still require cushions and that it can be trial-and-error, but she didn't say anything specific.

I wish a standing desk and/or a new work tray were options, but they aren't; we are moving to temporary offices in a year due to construction (and then will eventually be moving into new offices after that), so Facilities has made it pleasantly clear that I've got to work with what I've got.
posted by scody at 12:46 PM on October 16, 2012

Aeron greatly contributed to my back problems as well. I liked the mesh fabric but the lumbar support is just in the wrong place. I doubt a stratta cushion would help you very much; lumbar support is a lot more important.

I finally switched to the Humanscale Freedom, with the headrest. It's better, but not perfect. The arms are even more adjustable than the Aeron (and would meet your needs, as they can be dropped almost to butt level); the lumbar support is better for me (though I have the opposite habits to yours as far as arching my back); the recline tension isn't adjustable and while a nice idea doesn't really work in practice, I'm always upright (which is probably better anyway); the headrest was unnecessary. I considered the Steelcase as well -- if they're still doing their "try before you buy" thing take advantage of it -- it's hard to evaluate a chair without sitting in it for a few days.

In the past few months my chair has been me lying flat on the floor, because my spine finally gave out on me and I'm frequently unable to stand or sit upright at all. I'm on my second steroid epidural; one more and they'll send me to surgery. Whatever you do don't keep sitting in a chair that's putting your back in spasm on a regular basis. It's not worth it. At all.
posted by ook at 12:51 PM on October 16, 2012

I shared your pain for 3+ years. I regret to say I was never able to make peace with my chair. The one thing I did not try and maybe should have, was to get some kind of mesh-nullifying seat insert/replacement. The fact that the seat kind of sagged in the middle made my lower back and hips ache in ways that were remarkable and surprising. I often thought about just putting a board across the seat for a day to see if that helped but I have to confess I never did and instead sold the damn thing on eBay. So that is what I would suggest - a padded board across the seat bottom. I really liked almost everything else about the chair but the seat made me want to cry in a very un-manly way.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:59 PM on October 16, 2012

I'm sitting in a Leap right now and had an Aeron at my last job. I actually had the small Aeron, even though I am a 6' tall and 200 lbs. I find them both adjustable enough for me and I'm a pretty particular sitter. I found that the fitting videos on the Herman Miller site were actually quite helpful.

If you're having this much trouble finding a comfortable seated position, I'd really consider seeing a medical professional. You mentioned a PT that you work with, so hopefully you're already doing this. Mrs. Advicepig couldn't find a seated position that worked for her and that ended up with surgery, a micro discectomy to be more specific. She went to a fair number of providers before her chiropractor sent her to a neurosurgeon to look at MRIs.
posted by advicepig at 1:05 PM on October 16, 2012

Have you ever tried a kneeling chair?

People I've known with back problems swear by them. I used to have one that was a lot like this, and I was comfortable using it for hours at a time.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:06 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some sort of padding on the seat to lift your legs up so that your knees are higher than your hips by an inch or so. A foot rest might be needed or can be used along with the padding depending on the length of your legs. I find this very helpful for lower back/hip/pelvic pain and it helps with over arching by tilting your pelvis a bit. I know this is completely against what all the ergonomic set ups say to do, but it is the only way I can sit for any length of time without hip and lower back pain. A rolled up or folded towel behind my knees has worked wonders at making other peoples chairs comfortable if I've had to work in other offices.

When I moved here I was surprised by how many office chairs in the US seem to be fixed and have almost no adjustments in them, except for tipping back suddenly and scaring the crap out of me).
posted by wwax at 1:06 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

For whatever it's worth - I had an Aeron chair for 6 months, and came out of the experience with a herniated disc. You couldn't pay me to sit in one again.

THIS turned out to be the solution to the problem. Different, but it works.
posted by dbiedny at 1:31 PM on October 16, 2012

re: annoying armrests - can you remove them entirely, or is that no good to you. I have unscrewed the whole assembly on several chairs without any problems.
posted by crocomancer at 1:37 PM on October 16, 2012

Being told to make do with what you've got sounds very sketchy. Even at my crappiest and most oppressive minimum wage job when I produced a Dr's note saying they needed to make whatever ergonomic changes I required they most readily complied. Isn't this something that OSHA oversees?
posted by MonsieurBon at 2:18 PM on October 16, 2012

Response by poster: Sorry to thread-sit. Going without armrests is simply not an option (at least not for extended periods of time; it's fine for short periods); it just causes a different type of strain from regular (too-high) armrests. I do need armrests, but I need them to be really low. I forgot to mention I have bad knees, too, so kneeling chairs are not an option.

I appreciate the feedback about different chairs; it's good food for thought (and if anyone can suggest a specific retail store in L.A. where I can try out a variety of brands/styles, I'm all ears).*

Under the immediate circumstances I'm mainly interested to hear if there's anyone who had a similar problem with an Aeron chair and managed to use a specific product in order to improve it. (Something like this, or this? Or the cushion linked above?)

when I produced a Dr's note saying they needed to make whatever ergonomic changes I required they most readily complied.

As soon as I mentioned being in physical therapy, facilities got me the Aeron chair in the first place, as well as a new keyboard tray. I've bought a few different cushions and a new keyboard out of the department budget. It's not that my employer is not helping; it's that they're reaching the limits of what they seem to be able/willing to do to help, especially as we are moving to temporary offices soon due to pending construction and budgets for new office equipment/furniture/etc. have consequently been cut to the bone. I can bring in a doctor's note, but I don't know that that's going to result in their being willing to spend thousands of dollars on a standing desk and top-of-the-line chair for me. I think they feel they've made pretty reasonable accommodations already.

*I did visit Relax the Back in Studio City a few weeks ago, and they had only an extremely limited number of chairs to try (and all of them over $1000). Additionally, they only demonstrated the individual back and seat cushions with an old bucket carseat, not an office chair, so it was impossible to tell if they would work for my situation or not.
posted by scody at 2:26 PM on October 16, 2012

One of the critical things about Aeron chairs is they come in three sizes, and if the size is wrong, then your chances of getting comfortable in them is pretty low.

There are also options -- one is a real lumbar support, another is real adjustable arms. It may be that those would fix some of the problems. The best way to find out would be to go to a dealer and try them to make sure the arms get to where you need them to go, and that the lumbar support actually supports something. It's a tricky little thing -- it slides up and down, which is obvious, but you can also take it out and flip it over, which changes how far in the support moves.
posted by eriko at 2:33 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm becoming more and more convinced that sitting on wheels is bad for the back. Instead of having a stable seat, the chair rolls around and promotes slouching, swaybacking and other bad back habits.

Anyway, I know my back hurts if I use a wheelie chair for a day, whereas if I sit all day in my big old solid oak non-wheelie chair at home, I don't have a problem.

Can you lock the wheels or somehow do without them?

The other suggestion I have is to do some core muscle strengthening stuff.

The standing desk idea is also great, although it takes some adjustment, mental and physical.
posted by zadcat at 3:49 PM on October 16, 2012

At my last job we had Aerons and I now work at a place with Leaps, and I can't say that one is any better than the other (I do prefer the Leap, but that's pretty much for aesthetic reasons). Both are initially very comfy to sit in, but after a long time my back will ache too, although I think for me this is just my posture and tendency to slouch forward and press my nose up against my computer screen. I've recently come up with the idea of locking the seat back so it doesn't tilt, and it does feel a bit better to have a firmer support. But I think zadcat might be onto something though, with the wheels and rolling. Maybe I'll have to try wedging mine, or taking them off.
Incidentally a friend of mine works as a Steelcase salesman and a few years ago he talked me into buying a display model Leap chair for something ridiculous like $150. I had it at home for a while and then, because I wasn't using it and was kinda broke, I sold it last year on Kijiji. So, if you do want to try one out, you might well find one for sale online, or through an office supply company.
posted by Flashman at 4:28 PM on October 16, 2012

I sit on an Aeron chair at work. I used to have arm, neck, shoulder and wrist problems until I sat at my desk differently — for me the solution involved sitting at my desk at the interior point of my L shaped desk. That way, I rested my arms directly on the desk on either side, keeping my wrists and arms pretty flat and shoulders relaxed. I have my feet up on an ottoman, my chair at a good height, and my monitors and keyboard pushed back fairly far.

I keep my seat back locked in a fairly upright position so I don't slouch. I took the lumbar thingie off my chair altogether and don't use any cushions or back supports.
posted by clone boulevard at 6:22 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

If the Aeron isn't working for you and you can't use a kneeling chair, I vote standing desk.

It doesn't need to be expensive. I use my normal desk with a laptop stand perched on a stack of document boxes. It's not pretty, but it's reasonably stable and works fine. It might be worth you rigging up something like that for a few days' trial, even if all it does is give you a break from the Aeron while you figure out how to fix that problem.

I think the trick really is variety -- our bodies aren't built to be held in a fixed position for a long period of time. If I spend a whole day in a conference room chair, my back hurts. If I use a kneeling chair for more than a couple of hours, my knees get sore. But if in the course of the day I swap between an ordinary chair, a kneeling chair, standing desk, and lounging on the office sofa, nothing hurts at all.
posted by Susan PG at 11:48 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nthing standing desk. That your employer cannot assist further is no excuse. Fix this problem yourself. Ignore the expensive commercial standing desks. Read up on the proper ergonomic height for you. Find a way to make it work. Maybe four cinder blocks under your existing desk legs. Maybe a creative riser. If your employer finds your solution unsightly they'd be very wise to keep that opinion to themselves or provide the attractive alternative.
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 12:46 AM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

My friend works for an ergonomic workplace furniture company. They never have sold the Aeron and they likely never will.
I have not received any kickbacks or special treatment from them, btw, but have purchased some of their products at full price.
I believe their reasoning is along the lines of the chair not really encouraging movement or being anything more than very adjustable.

I realize you are explicitly asking for help making the Aeron work for you, therefore I'm a little reluctant to jump on the standing desk train, despite my support and use of such a solution.

I also just used piled up document boxes on my desk at work until facilities finally got sick of looking at it and raised my desk.

For my home office I found a commercial grade adjustable height standing desk at an office furniture resale shop for $120, that usually sells for over $1200. It wasn't quite high enough for my monitor so I built an 8" riser shelf out of a scratch and dent Ikea shelf plus some feet.

The problems you've described though might not necessarily be solved by a standing desk. The new lower back pain, yes, maybe. But the shoulder and neck pain might not be solved with a standing desk unless you put a lot of work into setting the optimal monitor height and angle and keyboard and mouse height.

If you hit me up off list I'd be happy to direct you to my friend's company.
posted by MonsieurBon at 8:46 AM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Checking back in for an update. The excellent suggestion of an ottoman (or, in the case of what I was able to cobble together today, a box plus a throw pillow) seems to have taken quite a bit of strain off my mid-back, though at the expense somewhat of my easily tweaked knees. (I'm hoping a better box/pillow combo might fix that!)

The repeated suggestions for a standing desk have definitely given me food for thought, though I have always had pain from standing for long periods of time, too (yay for scoliosis), which makes me a little hesitant to try it as a full-time solution right away. (Also, my work desk is one of those massive L-shaped behemoths, so it's not really practical to raise the entire thing on cinderblocks.) But this thread has convinced me to look into portable standing desks -- if anyone has any specific suggestions for sturdy and affordable (under $100) products, please share -- so that I can at least try alternating standing with sitting.

posted by scody at 3:51 PM on October 17, 2012

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