What is an orthopedic office chair?

Ergonomic and orthopedic office chairs are very similar. What are the major differences and which is best?

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Do you find that after a days work your back aches and your neck and shoulders are stiff and sore? 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 is the best office chair for medical conditions like sciatica?  

Is there really a difference between an ergonomic and orthopedic office chair? YES! 

Unfortunately, many office chair retailers 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 office chair and deciding which is best for medical conditions like sciatica. The dangers of sitting: why sitting is the new smoking

orthopaedic task chairs

1. What is an ergonomic office chair?

An ergonomic chair is designed to optimise support for your body while you sit. The key feature of every good ergonomic chair is that it is highly adjustable. Because your sitting posture constantly changes throughout your working day, a good ergonomic chair needs to accommodate these changes by continually supporting your body. Why a fully adjustable office chair is important. 

Good ergonomic chairs can prevent back, neck and shoulder pain caused by incorrect sitting.

To achieve this, they should have the following design features:

leila mesh office chair
The Leila is a fully adjustable ergonomic office chair

Design features of ergonomic office chairs

Office chairs are usually fitted with one of the following types of swivel mechanism:

2. What is an orthopedic office chair?

Orthopedic 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. How to Protect Your Health in the Age of the Office Chair.

However, there are two crucial differences between orthopedic and ergonomic office chairs: Orthopedic chairs have a Free-Float Swivel Mechanism and Dual Density Seat Foam.

While ergonomic chairs can prevent back ailments, orthopedic chairs alleviate the impact of sitting on existing medical preconditions of the lower back.

a. Free-Float Swivel Mechanism

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

Orthopedic chairs use a free-float swivel mechanism that allows separate, or independent control of the seat and backrest.

This is not possible on a chair fitted with either a synchronous, or permanent contact mechanism.

The free-float mechanism on orthopedic office chairs allow the seat to be adjusted to a forward sloping position. This reduces the disc pressure in the lumbar region of the back. The forward slope, or negative tilt, is typically limited to a maximum of 5 degrees. 

By independently controlling the angles between the backrest and the seat, orthopedic chairs may alleviate, and even rehabilitate certain medical preconditions, specifically musculoskeletal issues of the spine. What actually happens when you sit?

Medical professionals often endorse orthopedic office chairs.

Wellback 300 orthopedic office chair
Forward sloping seat option on Wellback 300 Orthopedic chair

b. Dual Density Seat Foam

Moulded foam has long been recognised by ergonomists, occupational health, and medical professionals as being able to provide the best support and cushioning for office chairs. Dual Density moulded foam adds an extra dimension by providing even better support and comfort.

dual-density seat foam for orthopedic office chair
Dual density foam is a standard feature on all our orthopedic office chairs

Dual density seat foam

The seat foam has a firm inner core (shown in red), surrounded by a softer outer foam layer (shown in yellow). The combination of these two layers improves your posture and reduces backache and muscle fatigue.

What is Dual Density seat foam and how does it improve comfort and support?

3. Ratings for Orthopedic Office Chairs

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

BASIC. This is the entry-level rating. An orthopedic chair must have a free-float mechanism and dual-density seat foam.

FAIR. An additional point is awarded for a height adjustable armrests.

GOOD. A further point is awarded for multi-adjustable armrests.

EXCELLENT. The final point is for a height adjustable backrest or adjustable lumbar support.

Wellback 100 orthopedic and typist office chair
The Wellback 100 with multi-adjustable armrests has an orthopedic rating of "EXCELLENT"

4. Comparing Chair Types

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

Feature Orthopedic chair Ergonomic chair
Swivel and Tilt Mechanism Fully independent free-float mechanism Typically synchronous or permanent contact
Seat Foam Moulded, Dual Density Moulded, single density
May alleviate certain medical preconditions, specifically musculoskeletal issues of the spine like sciatica Yes Less likely
Seat angle adjustment Yes, fully independent seat angle adjustment. Lockable in any position. For 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 adjustment Yes, limited to 5 degrees No
Backrest angle adjustment Yes, fully independent backrest adjustment. Lockable in any position Yes. For synchronous mechanisms, there is a mechanical link to the movement of the seat.
Backrest height adjustment Optional Optional
Lumbar support Yes, integrated with backrest height and angle adjustment Optional on better ergonomic chairs
Multi-Adjustable armrests Optional Optional

5. Heavy Duty Orthopedic Office Chair

If you have a larger build and need a high-back chair, most standard task chairs will not be suitable for you. Furthermore, if you also have a back-related ailment, not only do you require a heavy duty office chair, but also an orthopedic one that provides the correct support for your back.

Heathrow Heavy Duty Orthopaedic Chair with adjustable armrests

There are very few office chairs available in South Africa that combine both the heavy duty and orthopedic attributes. What is a heavy duty orthopedic office chair?

The Heathrow is an exception and is a true heavy duty orthopedic office chair.

The mechanism on the Heathrow Heavy Duty Orthopedic Chair allows you to independently adjust the:

      • Backrest angle
      • Seat Tilt angle
      • Seat Depth.


heathrow mechanism allows multiple adjustments
Mechanism on the Heathrow Heavy Duty Orthopedic Office Chair

6. What is the best office chair for sciatica? Is an orthopedic office chair a good choice?

Sciatica occurs when the sciatic nerve is pinched. It results in pain in the lower back, back of the thighs, and legs. Typically it only affects one leg.

The best office chairs for sciatica should have a forward tilting seat and excellent lower back support. In others words, an orthopedic office chair is ideal for a medical condition like sciatica.

7. 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 like sciatica. 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, in other words, the majority of people, 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.

To ensure you purchase an office chair that’s right for you, get guidance from a specialist
Contact us for professional advice

Selecting the right chair must take the following into consideration:

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


Still confused? Do you need help selecting the right chair? 

Visit our showroom!

Our team of qualified Office Ergonomics Risk Facilitators will assess your posture and determine whether an ergonomic or orthopedic office chair is best for you!

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