What is an orthopedic office chair?

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orthopaedic task chairs

Do you find that after a days work your back aches and your neck and shoulders are stiff and sore? If so, then perhaps your chair is not the right fit for you! People may tell you that you need an ergonomic or orthopedic office chair to deal with these challenges. What are orthopedic office chairs and how do they differ from their ergonomic counterparts? What’s the best chair for you?


Is there really a difference between an ergonomic and orthopaedic office chair? The answer is YES. Unfortunately, many companies use these terms interchangeably to describe their products, thereby creating confusion among consumers.

In this article, we will define both chair types and highlight their differences. Finally, we will provide guidelines to assist you in selecting the right chair.



1. What is an ergonomic office chair?

An ergonomic chair is one that has been designed with the intention of optimising support for your body while sitting at work. The key feature of every ergonomic chair is that it is highly adjustable.

All orthopedic office chairs are also ergonomic chairs, but ergonomic chairs are not necessarily orthopedic chairs.

Your sitting posture changes throughout the day, and a good chair needs to accommodate these changes by continually supporting your body. Ergonomic chairs can prevent back, neck and shoulder pain caused by incorrect sitting. To achieve this, they should have the following design features:

Design features of ergonomic office chairs

  • Seat height adjustment
  • Backrest angle adjustment
  • Adjustable lumbar support
  • Seat depth and width adjustment (or armrests that are width adjustable)
  • Contoured backrest that takes the shape of your back (upholstered or mesh)
  • Moulded foam seat with a waterfall front edge
  • Adjustable armrests
  • Stable base with castors


Ergonomic chairs typically have either of the following swivel mechanisms:

  • Synchronous. Here the movement of the seat and backrest are mechanically linked. In other words, when the backrest moves, the seat will move with it, and in the same direction. A synchronous mechanism will not allow you to adjust the backrest angle without simultaneously adjusting the seat angle.
  • Permanent Contact. With these mechanisms, only the angle of the backrest can be changed. The inclination of the seat remains fixed and cannot be adjusted.
with a synchronous chair mechanism the movement of the seat and backrest are mechanically linked. These are not used on orthopedic office chairs
A synchronous swivel mechanism is found on many ergonomic office chairs. With these mechanisms, the movement of the seat and backrest is mechanically linked.

2. What is an orthopaedic office chair?

Orthopaedic chairs include all of the above Design features of ergonomic office chairs. These chairs will therefore also prevent back, neck and shoulder pain caused by incorrect sitting.

However, there is one crucial difference between orthopedic and ergonomic office chairs:
Orthopedic chairs use a free-float swivel mechanism that allows the seat and backrest angles to be controlled separately, or independently.
This is not possible on an ergonomic chair fitted with either a synchronous, or permanent contact mechanism.

Free-float mechanism on Form orthopedic office chair
Orthopedic office chairs have an independent (free-float) mechanism that allows the movement of the seat and backrest to be controlled separately

By independently controlling the angles between the backrest and the seat, orthopaedic chairs may alleviate, and even rehabilitate, certain medical preconditions, specifically musculoskeletal issues of the spine. As a result, orthopaedic office chairs are often endorsed by medical professionals.

All orthopedic office chairs are also ergonomic chairs, but ergonomic chairs are not necessarily orthopedic chairs.

forward slope or negative tilt on an orthopedic office chair
The free-float mechanism on orthopedic office chairs allow the seat to be adjusted to a forward sloping position. The forward slope, or negative tilt, is typically limited to a maximum of 5 degrees. (Pictured is the Form orthopedic office chair)

3. Ratings for Office Chairs

To assist you in selecting the correct orthopedic office chair, we have developed an Orthopaedic Rating system. This rating is based on a 4-point scale where one point is awarded for each attribute.

BASIC. This is the entry-level rating and the chair must have a free-float mechanism.

FAIR. In addition to the free-float mechanism, an extra point is awarded for a height adjustable backrest.

GOOD. In addition to the free-float mechanism, an additional point is awarded for a height adjustable backrest, and another for height adjustable armrests.

EXCELLENT. In addition to the free-float mechanism, an additional point is awarded for a height adjustable backrest, and two points for multi-adjustable armrests.


4. Comparing Chair Types

In the table below we compare the important differences between orthopaedic and ergonomic office chairs.

Key FeaturesOrthopedic Office ChairErgonomic Office Chair
Swivel and Tilt MechanismFully independent seat and backrest (free-float) mechanismVarious types, typically synchronous and permanent contact
May alleviate certain medical preconditions, specifically musculoskeletal issues of the spineYesLess likely
Seat angle adjustmentYes, fully independent seat angle adjustment. Lockable in any positionFor synchronous mechanisms, there is a mechanical link to the movement of the backrest. For permanent contact mechanisms, the seat angle is fixed
Negative tilt (forward sloping) seat adjustmentYesNo
Backrest angle adjustmentYes, fully independent backrest movement. Lockable in any positionYes. For synchronous mechanisms, there is a mechanical link to the movement of the seat.
Backrest height adjustmentYesOptional on some chairs
Lumbar supportYes, integrated with backrest height and angle adjustmentOptional on some chairs
Multi-Adjustable armrestsOptionalOptional
HeadrestOptionalOptional
Important differences between ergonomic and orthopedic office chairs


5. Which chair is best for you?

Before selecting an ergonomic or orthopedic office chair, the first question that needs to be answered is whether or not you have any medical preconditions, specifically musculoskeletal issues of the spine. If so, then it is likely that an orthopedic chair will be the better option. If not, then either chair type will be suitable.

Remember: All office chairs are designed for the “average” person. This results in chairs that suits the vast majority of the population, but not everyone. For example, a short slim person may find that a standard chair is too high and the armrests are too far apart. In such a case, the chair may need a different height adjuster or armrests that have width adjustment.

Ergonomic and orthopedic office chairs are designed for the “average” person. There is no, and will never be, a one-size-fits-all. This is why professional guidance from a specialist will ensure that you purchase an office chair that’s right for you.


Selecting the right chair for you, must take the following into consideration:

  • pre-existing health (musculoskeletal) problems, specifically related to the spine
  • body size and shape
  • the task that you have to perform
  • workstation design (e.g. dentists require a different chair than industrial workers or computer operators).
  • the number of hours you sit at your workstation each day

For a detailed explanation, refer to our article – How do I choose the best office chair for me?


Still confused and need help selecting the best chair for you? Visit our showroom. Our qualified Office Ergonomics Risk Facilitators will assess your posture and determine whether an ergonomic or orthopedic office chair is best for you.


Author: Philip Wichmann
Director at Karo Manufacturing (Pty) Ltd
25 Nov 2020 (rev 1)

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