Computer work requires the user to perform highly repetitive motions for prolonged periods of time in basically the same position. Doing these tasks continuously for over several hours exposes muscles and tendons in the hands, necks and shoulders to hundreds, even thousands of repetitions that can lead to wear-and-tear and damaging injury.
By taking the ergonomic preventative maintenance steps below, you can stay productive while protecting against carpal tunnel, repetitive strain injury (RSI) and other pains in the neck.
- Give Yourself a Break: Reduce the stress placed on the body during an extended stretch at the keyboard by streeeeeeetching to loosen up muscles after a long period in the same position. Every twenty minutes or so, take a break from the screen to do shoulder rolls and neck stretches. Every hour, get out of your chair and walk around to get the blood circulating.
- Room to Work: Keep your work area clean, clear and area free of things that restrict movement so you’re not reaching over, under, around and bumping into things. Have the space to use your mouse with either the right or the left hand. Make sure you have proper air circulation and that you aren’t seated under vents or in front of fans that blow right on you.
- Shed Some Light on the Situation: Bright light or glare from overhead lights, desk lamps and windows can lead to eye problems. Glare can cause eyestrain, squinting and headaches, so adjust monitor screen height or tilt it so your light source isn’t reflected (to test, turn off monitor and if you can see your reflection in it, you’ve got glare). Also tweak your screen brightness and font size for vision comfort.
- Posturing: Listen to your mother and sit up straight. Hunching leads to back pain, neck strain and shoulder tension. Your head, neck and torso should be naturally aligned when seated. One of the biggest causes of neck, upper back and shoulder pain is what’s called a “Forward Head.” Tilting or craning your head and neck forward is like supporting a bowling ball with the muscles of your upper back and puts strain on your cervical discs, causing a tension pain across your shoulders and often headaches, and even rotator cuff pain or impingement and reduced cervical lordosis (I love to throw technical jargon from the day job around—and I know how to spell it all, too!). When you try to overcompensate by forcing your head back and tilting your chin up, it only makes matters worse. Check your posture by standing with your back against a wall. With correct spinal alignment, your heels, butt, shoulders and back of your head should all be making contact. Try a Pectoral Stretch and a Trapezius Stretch to loosen and strengthen tight muscles.
- Hand Position: Keep arms bent at a 90-degree angle with elbows near body while typing and wrists and hands even with elbows. Use the keyboard more than the mouse by incorporating keyboard shortcuts like Ctrl+S to save, Ctrl+P to print.
- Take a Seat: The best desk is sturdy and has a low keyboard tray. The best chair has comfortable arm rests (but don’t depend upon them), with lumbar support that fits your low back, and adjusts so that feet rest fully on the floor and knees are at a 90-degree angle. It should have a smaller seat so there are a few inches between the inner knee and the edge of the seat. The back should be high enough to reach the shoulder blades. Align the monitor, keyboard and mouse so you aren’t twisting your back or neck as you work. Your monitor should be positioned an arm’s length away and centered in your line of vision with sight line about 3” below top of screen so you’re not straining your neck to look up at it. The keyboard should sit flat, not elevated in the back, so your wrists aren’t bent. Don’t let your hands rest on the keyboard while you type. If you use a laptop, think about a wireless keyboard on the pull out tray and a second monitor.
- Go Through the Motions: Watch out for movements that strain the body, especially if they’re repetitive i.e. bending, reaching, twisting to look at your work, get envelopes and letterhead, or, heaven forbid, watch TV over your left shoulder (darn that HGTV!)
- Change it Up: Vary your tasks throughout the day to bring different muscles into play and give your body a chance to recover. Mix non-computer work in with your keyboarding. File, do your bills, take a brisk ride on your elliptical, vacuum, walk to the mailbox, sit in a different chair so your posture is altered.
For long term care of your body, sleep on a firm mattress and try a cervical support pillow or even feather pillow you can shape to fit the curve of your neck. Lying flat on your back is often recommended for forward head problems.
I don’t pretend to be a doctor, so see one if pain persists, especially if it’s accompanied by weakness in arms or legs, numbness in arms, legs, chest or belly, or loss of bodily functions. They can diagnosis a more significant injury such as torn tendons or herniated disc.
Bottom line: Take care of yourself. Be aware of good ergonomic health practices. And give yourself a break when you need one. Your neck and shoulders will thank you!