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Home  > Article

Working Wounded

By Laura Sweeney

Sitting at a desk and working on a computer seems like a harmless occupation, but it can be stressful on your body. Physicians and ergonomic experts have some suggestions to keep you feeling well.

Computers and keyboards have turned repetitive stress injuries like tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome from little-known ailments to the number one job-related illness in the country. -OSHA

Is staring at your computer monitor burning your eyes? Is sitting in your chair all day giving you a backache? Are your fingers numb from typing, clicking, and scrolling? Welcome to the ranks of the working wounded-not the construction workers who forgot to wear their hard hats, or the movers who pulled their backs lifting refrigerators, but the millions of office workers who suffer serious ailments from sitting in front of their computers all day long.

Seems like a harmless occupation, but sitting at a desk and working on a computer can be stressful on your body. It might surprise you to know that sitting puts more strain on your back than standing, or even lifting. And with people spending more and more time sitting in front of their computers, cases of eyestrain, back problems, and repetitive stress injuries afflicting hands, wrists, and necks are increasingly common.

The Number One Job-Related Illness
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says that computers and keyboards have turned repetitive stress injuries (RSI) like tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome from little-known ailments to the one of the most common job-related illness in the country.

How do you know if you have a repetitive stress problem? For many people who work at keyboards, it begins with a dull ache in the wrists and forearms. Pain, stiffening, and numbing then spread to the hands and fingers. If you find yourself stopping work to massage your hands and arms, you might have a bigger problem than simple fatigue. Repetitive stress injuries can damage tendons, nerves, or muscles.

Treatment for RSI ranges from rest and exercise, to braces and anti-inflammatory drugs, cortisone, and even surgery. But some common sense can help, too. Physicians recommend that people who work sitting down and in front of a computer should take frequent breaks, stretch and move around, and avoid repeating the same tasks for hours on end.

Ergonomics Can Help
Ergonomic experts-people who actually analyze how we sit, stand, think, and react in our environments - have some suggestions, too. Arranging your work area "properly," so that your body is always aligned comfortably and correctly, can ease RSI pain, and it also can prevent the backaches and eye strain that plague many professionals. Here are some practical ergonomic recommendations.

If You Suffer From RSI...

  • Adjust the height of your chair so your thighs are parallel to floor.
  • Adjust the keyboard height so your forearms are parallel to floor.
  • Don't rest your forearms or wrists on your desk. Keep them parallel to the floor and in a straight line with elbows. Don't bend your wrists either.
  • Use your arms to move hands around to reach the keys instead of straining your fingers.
  • Sit straight and avoid leaning forward to reach the keyboard.

If Your Eyes Feel Strained...

  • Place the computer monitor screen so that it sits slightly below your eye level. The screen should be 20 to 26 inches from your eyes.
  • Adjust lighting to minimize glare and reflections. Try placing a non-glare filter on top of the screen.
  • Give your eyes a break by standing up to stretch periodically, or at least by looking away from your screen once every 20 minutes. If possible, alternate computer activities with other tasks.
  • Use an adjustable copy holder to hold your document at the same level as the computer screen. This should reduce neck and shoulder strain, too.

If Your Back Aches...

  • Adjust your chair so that your arms are at desk level and your feet are on the floor.
  • Position yourself so your weight is shifted forward (off your spine).
  • Avoid crossing your legs. This interferes with the circulation to your legs and throws your spine out of balance.
  • Use a lumbar roll to support your lower back. Some chairs have this feature built in.

Get up and walk around at least once an hour to stretch your spine.

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