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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Oh, My Aching Back!

There are a number of physical conditions and mobility limitations that need to be addressed through good design. Last time we looked at a kitchen designed for a wheelchair user. This post is about making adaptations for taller users and people who have low-back pain.

For wheelchair users, roll-out trays in base cabinets are a necessity. For the rest of us, especially users with low-back problems, they can save us from the unnatural contortions needed to reach things at the back of base cabinet shelves. Full-extension slides will make all the contents readily available.

Some of the requirements of wheelchair users are the opposite of those needed by the tall/ back pain spectrum. The 32” maximum work surface height required for wheelchair users can be disastrous for people who have low-back problems. This is particularly true if they are taller than the 5 foot- 4 inch height that is the basis for NKBA design guidelines.

When we put a muscle in tension and contraction at the same time we make it susceptible to strain and cramping. Bending forward to lift weight makes the discs in our spine susceptible to slip and is hazardous to back health. That is exactly what we do when we lean forward for extended periods at the countertop or while seated at a table-height chair, such as at a writing desk. (The same is true of the desk at your office.) This is especially true if the low back has been strained in the recent past or if you are more than 5 feet-4 inches tall.

In the drawings here, a person 5’-8” tall is shown standing next to a standard 36” high counter top. It isn’t so bad at the cooking surface where you need to look into taller pots, and generally don’t have to bend forward and suspend your upper body. However, at the general work surface or especially at the sink, it can become uncomfortable. What is the ideal countertop height? Ergonomic experts say 1 to 4 inches below your bent elbow. That can be 40 inches or more above the finished floor.

People who have low-back problems need a raised countertop area to avoid exacerbating existing injuries. This raises concerns about general appearance, functionality and resale value of your kitchen. However, there are numerous attractive and unobtrusive solutions to this problem that should be tailored to you and your kitchen. For optimal results, work with a design professional who is experienced in ergonomic design to create a work space that is right for you.

As we approach the Memorial Day observance, I’d like to close this post with a statement of gratitude to all those who have given life or limb to make freedom and democracy in these United States possible. From the bottom of my heart, thank-you.

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