After enduring a lengthy day of work, it’s not uncommon to feel the ache and stiffness that often plagues the neck, shoulders, and back. To address these discomforts, you may have come across the terms “ergonomic” and “orthopedic” in relation to office chairs. Yet, these two categories of chairs tend to create confusion due to their subtle differences. This article seeks to clarify the distinctions between orthopedic and ergonomic office chairs and help you determine the most suitable choice, particularly when dealing with conditions like sciatica.

Ergonomic and Orthopedic office chairs share a common goal: to enhance comfort and overall well-being. Ergonomic chairs are versatile solutions designed to promote proper posture and alleviate discomfort caused by extended periods of sitting. On the other hand, Orthopedic chairs are specialised options tailored for individuals already grappling with orthopedic conditions.

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

The unfortunate reality is that many office chair retailers often use “ergonomic” and “orthopedic” interchangeably, thereby creating confusion among consumers. In this article, we will define both chair types and highlight their differences. Finally, we offer guidelines to help you choose the optimal office chair, especially when dealing with medical conditions like sciatica.

It’s crucial to note that finding the right chair for your needs is only part of the solution. How you setup your chair and workstation is equally important in maintaining your well-being. What is the correct ergonomic height for my desk, computer monitor and office chair?

1. What is an ergonomic office chair?

Ergonomic chairs help prevent back, neck and shoulder pain caused by sitting for long periods.

An ergonomic chair is a type of chair that is designed with the aim of providing optimal comfort, support, and efficiency for individuals who spend substantial time sitting at their desk or workstation. Rooted in ergonomic design principles, these chairs prioritise the natural alignment of the human body, particularly the spine, to minimise strain and discomfort. While these chairs are commonly found in office settings, they’ve also made their way into various other environments where extended sitting is common, such as home offices, study spaces and gaming setups. A critical feature of any ergonomic office chair is its adjustability, as explored in detail in the blog “The Importance of a Fully Adjustable Office Chair“.

Karo’s Fenix is a fully adjustable ergonomic office chair

Key features of a good ergonomic chair include:

  • Adjustable seat height.
  • Backrest angle adjustment.
  • Customisable lumbar support.
  • Adjustable seat depth and armrest width.
  • Height-adjustable armrests.
  • Backrest contoured to match your back’s shape.
  • Molded foam seat with a waterfall edge.
  • Stable base with castors.

The higher the count of ergonomic adjustment features, the higher the chair’s ergonomic rating becomes. If you spend the majority of your seated day and do not have chronic back, neck, or shoulder issues, a highly-rated ergonomic office chair is the way to go.

2. What is an orthopedic office chair?

Orthopedic chairs go beyond general ergonomic comfort to alleviate the impact of sitting on existing medical preconditions of the lower back and are recommended for anyone with chronic lower back pain.

Karo’s OrthoMax Orthopedic Office Chair

An orthopedic chair is a specialised type of chair designed to provide support, comfort, and relief for individuals with orthopedic conditions, musculoskeletal disorders, or other physical challenges. Commonly recommended or prescribed by healthcare professionals, orthopedic chairs are designed to alleviate back pain, promote proper posture, and enhance overall comfort for individuals dealing with various orthopedic issues.

Orthopedic chairs are designed to provide targeted support and comfort for individuals with existing orthopedic conditions or musculoskeletal disorders. Typical examples include chronic back pain, coccyx pain, sciatica, arthritis, and other conditions that require the specialised support provided by an orthopedic chair.

Orthopedic chairs share many of the design features with ergonomic office chairs mentioned earlier, which means they too can prevent back, neck, and shoulder pain resulting from improper sitting. However, the key difference lies in the incorporation of a Free-Float Swivel Mechanism and an optional height adjustable backrest.

A. The Free-Float Swivel Mechanism

Free-Float mechanism on an Orthopedic Chair

Orthopedic chairs feature a free-float swivel mechanism that allows separate, or independent control of the movement of the seat and backrest. This is not possible on a chair fitted with either a synchronous, or permanent contact mechanism.

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 like sciatica. What actually happens when you sit?

Forward sloping seat on an Orthopedic Chair

The Free-Float Swivel Mechanism on an orthopedic office chair allows 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.

B. Back Support and Height Adjustable Backrests

Orthopedic chairs help maintain the elongated ‘S’ shape of the spine

When choosing an office chair, one of the key factors to prioritise is adequate lumbar support for the lower back. Back support for an office chair – why it’s important. Good back support is essential in order to prevent the onset or exacerbation of back-related health issues. Prolonged periods of sitting on a chair without proper back support, makes it difficult to maintain the elongated ‘S’ shape of the spine. This can lead to heightened pressure on the lumbar discs, resulting in discomfort and pain in the lower back area. Breaking Back – What actually happens when you sit?

Office chairs with good lumbar support play a pivotal role in ensuring that your spine retains its natural elongated ‘S’ shape. There are several variations of lumbar and back support on orthopedic chairs, each with various functions.

i) Office chairs with a height adjustable back and fixed lumbar support

Karo’s OrthoLux Orthopaedic Office Chair is available with a height adjustable backrest.

This type of office chair features a backrest that is height adjustable, coupled with a fixed lumbar support. The backrest is typically fully upholstered and padded. This design enables you to vertically align the chair’s backrest with your lumbar curvature, promoting better ergonomic support.

Height adjustment can be achieved through either a ratchet mechanism offering multiple preset positions, or alternatively, a handwheel that provides versatile customisation options.

In South Africa, Karo’s OrthoLux orthopedic office chair has a backrest that can be adjusted in height while maintaining a stable lumbar support.

ii) Height adjustable backrest on an office chair with an independently adjustable lumbar support

This dual functionality is present in the OrthoAir Orthopedic Office Chair.

This type of office chair features a backrest that can be adjusted vertically and it also includes an independently adjustable lumbar support. This means that you can customise the vertical positioning of both the chair’s backrest and the lumbar support according to your specific needs.

The vertical adjustment feature of the backrest provides multiple height options, allowing you to select the setting that best suits your personal comfort preferences.

To ensure the utmost comfort, these office chairs are equipped with a distinct lumbar support adjustment. This feature allows you to finely calibrate the back support, further enhancing your overall sitting experience.

iii) Office chair with a height adjustable back and inflatable lumbar support

The OrthoMax Orthopedic Office Chair has advanced back support features, including an inflatable lumbar support

This type of office chair boasts a height-adjustable backrest and an inflatable lumbar support feature. The vertical adjustment of the backrest’s height caters to a diverse range of users.

Engineered for exceptional back support, the OrthoMax Orthopedic Office Chair integrates a pneumatic lumbar cushion with an internal bladder that is easily inflatable via a manual hand pump. This innovative mechanism enables precise customisation of the back support’s position and firmness, ensuring the attainment of an ideal and personalised comfort level.

3. Ratings for Orthopedic Office Chairs

To simplify your selection process, an Orthopedic Rating system has been developed. This rating is based on a 4-point scale, with each attribute earning a point.

4. Comparing Chair Types

In the table below we compare the key differences between orthopedic and ergonomic office chairs:

Swivel and Tilt Mechanism Fully independent free-float mechanism Typically synchronous or permanent contact
Seat Foam High-density automotive grade moulded foam High-density automotive grade moulded foam
May alleviate certain medical preconditions, specifically musculoskeletal issues of the spine like sciatica Yes Less likely
Seat angle adjustment Yes, fully independent and lockable in any position Mechanically linked to the backrest movement or fixed for permanent contact
Negative tilt (forward sloping) seat adjustment Yes, limited to 5 degrees No
Backrest angle adjustment Yes, fully independent and lockable in any position Yes. For synchronous mechanisms, there is a mechanical link to the movement of the seat.
Backrest height adjustment Preferable Optional
Lumbar support Yes, integrated with backrest Optional on better ergonomic chairs
Multi-Adjustable armrests Optional Optional

5. Heavy Duty Orthopedic Office Chairs

Most standard task chairs will not be suitable for those with a larger physique and in need of a high-back chair. 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.

Such chairs are specifically designed to offer the vital support and features required for a truly comfortable and health-conscious sitting experience. There are very few office chairs available in South Africa that combines both the heavy duty and orthopedic attributes. What is a heavy duty orthopedic office chair?

A standout illustration of this is the Ortho Grande XXL Heavy Duty Orthopedic Office Chair which has an “EXCELLENT” orthopedic rating.

The Heathrow Heavy Duty Orthopedic Office Chair is equipped with a fully independent free-float mechanism but lacks a height-adjustable backrest. Nevertheless, the backrest on the Heathrow is designed to accommodate a wide range of people. For this reason, the Heathrow Heavy Duty Orthopedic Chair has a “GOOD” orthopedic rating.

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

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 office chair will be the better option. If not, then either chair type will be suitable.

Investing in a well-designed office chair can significantly improve your comfort and productivity while reducing the risk of musculoskeletal issues. Understanding the differences between ergonomic and orthopedic office chairs will empower you to make an informed decision and select the best chair for your needs. Always prioritise your health and well-being when choosing an office chair for your workspace.

To speak to an Office Ergonomics Risk Facilitator contact us on 011 392 6803 or email [email protected]

Article first seen on Karo’s Knowledge Centre – Follow the link for the full article –