What is the difference between office chair armrests?

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Armrests are components that are fitted on either side of the chair to rest or support your arms while you are working. When shopping for a new office chair, there are a lot of different features to consider, including the type of armrests. You may even wonder whether armrests are really necessary. So, before we get into what is the difference between office chair armrests, let’s first discuss whether or not they are necessary.

Armrests: YES or NO?

To be or not to be, that is the question? Ok, so perhaps not a Shakespearean tragedy, but the question has been widely discussed among industry professionals and consumers for many years. Some argue for and others against having armrests. The schools of thought are as follows:

1. Armrests – YES

Most research in the last 25 years has confirmed the importance of having armrests when you are in a seated position. For this reason you will find that majority of office chairs are fitted with armrests.

A study done by Rani Lueder (1996), found that height and rotational adjustable armrests provide superior forearm support during mouse use. The study also found that for keyboard work, armrests reduced fatigue in your neck and shoulders. Dr Alan Hedge (2002), maintains that armrests reduce the static loads on muscles in your neck, back, shoulders and arms. He also states that finger forces are lessened when your arms are supported while typing. Peter Opsvik (2008), stated that when we are seated, our arms require both freedom to move and lots of opportunities for support.

Lueder and Opsvik list the primary reasons why our arms need support:

  • Relieves the muscular loads on our neck, shoulders and arms
  • Stabilises our posture and helps promote a good posture
  • Eases the load placed on our back by the weight of our arms and hands, thereby reducing the stress in our back
  • Reduces muscle stress in our legs and facilitate getting in and out of the chair
  • Helps prevent excessive pressure on our buttocks
  • Reduces the strain on the muscles in our hands and arms while we work
  • Having support for our hand and underarm can also provide more strength and precision for the work that we are doing.

2. Armrests – NO

In his research, Peter Opsvik (2008) mentions that too much support can lead to passivity. Furthermore, armrests can create risk factors such as shoulder shrugging, contact stress on the forearm and a leaning posture. In their Ergonomics Guideline, the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacture Association (BIFMA), state that armrests should not restrict your preferred working posture. If armrests are an obstruction, they should be adjustable or detachable so that they do not interfere with your work.

In environments where you frequently need to get up and move about, armrests can become a hindrance and impede your movement. Good examples are retail, laboratories and factories. In some cases, like factories and laboratories, chair armrests can even pose a safety risk. Because they are not used for ‘working tasks’, chairs used sporadically, such as in training areas, canteens and meeting rooms, are often supplied without armrests.

3. Conclusion

“Should you get a chair with armrests?” The need for armrests is really determined by your personal preference and working environment.

Armrests on office chairs prevent musculoskeletal disorders to your arms, hands, back, neck and shoulders. Office chairs with multi-adjustable armrests are important if you need to create an ergonomically correct workstation. The ergonomic benefits of having armrests is diminished if you do not use them correctly, or sit incorrectly. Read more on this topic in the knowledge article What is the right way to sit?

What is the difference between office chair armrests?

Not sure which armrests are the best fit for your office chair? Let’s have a look at the available options and their differences.

1. Fixed armrests

Fixed armrests
Fixed (non-adjustable) armrests

As the name suggests, fixed armrests cannot be adjusted. These armrests are usually found on less expensive office chairs and are suitable for occasional use. They are not recommended for professional intensive use in an office environment. If they are used on task chairs, fixed armrests will only suit a small number of people and can result in awkward side leaning or interference. When this happens, the most reasonable action is to remove them.

2. Adjustable armrests

VIDEO – What is the difference between office chair armrests?

Adjustable armrests allow you to change the height of the armrests to suit your working environment. Armrests that are only height adjustable are often referred to as 1D (One Dimensional) armrests. Multi-adjustable armrests have additional adjustments, for example, width, depth and pivot angle. The level of armrest adjustability plays a significant role in determining the ergonomic rating on Karo office chairs.

Where the width of the armrests can be adjusted, they can be set further away or closer to you. Armrests that are both height and width adjustable are often referred to as 2D armrests. Being able to adjust the chair’s armrests improves the ergonomic comfort of the chair. Adjustable armrests are recommended for professional intensive use in an office environment.

office chair with height adjustable armrests
Height adjustable armrests

3. Armrest Pad Adjustments

All adjustable armrests have an armrest pad that may be adjustable to further improve the ergonomic setup of your workstation. The pads often have more than one adjustment feature.

Fixed pads – these armrest pads are static and do not move. Adjustable armrests that are fitted with fixed pads are only height adjustable.

office chair armrests
Fixed pads on armrests

Depth adjustment – these armrest pads have a sliding forward and backward movement. Because the pads slide backwards, you can position yourself closer to your workstation.

office chair adjustable armrests - depth adjustment
Pad depth adjustment

Width adjustment – these armrest pads can slide inwards and outwards so you can position the armrests either closer or further away from you. This enables you to set the pads so that your elbows are close to your body. See How do I adjust my office chair?

office chair adjustable armrests - width adjustment
Pad width adjustment

Pivot adjustmentthese armrest pads can rotate or pivot inwards and outwards. This improves comfort by allowing you to position the pads in exactly the right spot for the work that you are doing.

office chair adjustable armrests - pivot adjustment
Pad pivot adjustment

Pivoting pads are especially beneficial when you are working on a handheld device. As shown below, neck strain is minimised as the pads allow you to keep your head in an upright position.

Pivoting armrest pads are beneficial when using a mobile phone or tablet as they ensure your head remains upright.

Conclusion

There are many types of armrests available for office chairs. If you spend long hours sitting at your desk or workstation, then adjustable armrests are a a must-have function. For improved ergonomic comfort, select adjustable armrests with multiple adjustment functions. The more adjustable features that an office chair has, the greater the chance that you will be able to set it up to exactly suit your personal preferences and work environment.


Author: Philip Wichmann
Director at Karo Manufacturing (Pty) Ltd
27 Oct 2020

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