Free yourself from computer-related pain

Happy cheerful hipster man with a laptop sitting outdoors in nature, freedom and happiness concept

It’s a brand new year and now’s the time to finally do something about those aches and pains you’ve been having at the computer.  Maybe it’s just a bit of discomfort or the feeling that things are not set up right, or it’s actual pain that is just not getting better and in fact may be getting worse.  Maybe it’s at work on the computer, or at home on your laptop, or when you read on your tablet, or when you text a lot on your phone.  Regardless of which medium, there are many ways you can reduce or stop discomfort with a few little tweaks:

Check your neck position – Do you spend a lot of time looking down?  Adjust your monitor height so the height of the monitor is level with your eyes.  Get an external keyboard for your laptop so you can raise the laptop monitor to be level with your eyes.  Prop up your tablet on a stand or put a pillow under it so you don’t have to look down as much.  Use voice dictation for texting.

Check your elbow/forearm position – Do you lean on your desk or armrests a lot?  The contact stress can cause problems with blood and nerve supply so it’s best to limit leaning.  Laptops promote a lot of leaning on your forearms – also a good reason for getting an external keyboard and lowering it so your forearms are parallel to the ground with your elbows at 90 degrees of flexion.

Check your wrist position – There are three things to watch for:

  1. Your wrists should be straight – no bending up or down;
  2. Your wrists should be straight – no bending side to side when typing, try to float your hands over the keyboard;
  3. Your wrists should not touch any surfaces – no resting on the desk or wrist rest when typing.

Be sure to check your wrist position when holding your tablet too – it’s very easy to adopt an awkward wrist posture.

Check your back position – Raise or lower your chair so that when your feet are flat on the floor, your knees and hips are at 90 degrees of flexion.  If your chair has lumbar support, position it in the curve of your lower spine (usually just above your belt).  If your chair does not have lumbar support, get a small pillow or towel and place it in the correct position.

Check your sitting and/or standing position – Do you stay in one place longer than 5-10 minutes without adjusting your position?  Try moving around in your chair frequently – no position is necessarily “bad” unless you hold it long periods of time.  If you’re standing in one place, shift your weight from foot to foot often and alternate propping up each foot on a rest 6-8” of the floor for a different position.

Check your rest breaks – Do you ever sit any longer than an hour at your desk without getting up?  It’s important to take a little walk-around every hour and stand in place at your desk every 20 minutes.  This promotes good blood supply and undoes the damage you do your body by staying in one position.

Check your activity level – How many hours do you spend on a screen each day?  If you spend all day at work on your computer, it’s best to limit your personal screen time at night.  Your body does not like staying in the same position and using the same muscles for long – the result is discomfort, then aches and pains, and finally injury.

Do you stretch? – Stretches throughout the day loosen up tight muscles and promote that good blood supply.  Here’s a good three-minute routine for your upper body: hang your head and rotate it side to side slowly.  Then, where you feel the most tightness on each side, hold in place for 30 seconds.  Grasp your hands behind your low back with your arms straight and lift up slightly – hold for 30 seconds.  Twist in your chair and grab your back rest – hold for 30 seconds each side.

There, now you’re ready for a great start to the new year.  Enjoy your new-found freedom!

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How to choose a desk that’s ergonomic

So you’re at the computer quite a bit, right?  And you’ve heard that sitting is the new smoking which you’re concerned about.  You may also be starting to feel that your posture is less than ideal and that your neck/shoulder/wrist/back is starting to bother you.  So what can you do?1206_HP_FF_NP08

Getting a desk that’s ergonomic is one of the most important things you can do.  Your desk height can determine how much you stand, how much you sit, how ideal your keyboarding and mousing posture is, and how good your body feels.  It’s important to get your desk height right so you can feel comfortable and productive at work.

Most fixed height desks today still remain within the standard 28-30” range that was chosen with paperwork and handwriting in mind for the offices of the past.  When computers were introduced, desk height did not change, even though ergonomically, it should have.

Ergonomics aims to achieve the most neutral, comfortable position for your body, so that you can reduce the strain placed on your joints and muscles.  When you are using your keyboard and mouse for computer work, the most neutral posture is one where your elbows are at 90 degrees of flexion resting at your sides, with your forearms parallel to the ground.  This height is going to be different for everyone depending on their height and arm length.

To achieve proper desk height, we can do one of two things:  we can measure everyone and custom build desks according to the height they need, or we can have height adjustable desks.  The best way is the latter for the following reasons:  fixed desk height only benefits the person it was made for and can’t be adjusted for others; fixed desk height does not accommodate comfortably for both sitting and standing – only one or the other; and fixed height does not allow for any other office activities such as writing or reading because the height that is needed for those activities is 2-3” above elbow height.

Also, a drawback specific to a fixed standing height desk is the type of chair that is needed for sitting.  A chair of a higher height with a foot ring is needed, but this type of chair is uncomfortable for users.  This is because there is only one position available for the legs – on the foot ring.  Users can’t place their feet anywhere else because they don’t touch the floor.  Also, the foot ring is usually too low and not wide enough, placing pressure on the backs of the thighs and forcing the using to sit forward in their chair which strains the back and neck.

Height adjustable desks are most effective when they can lower for sitting and rise for standing.  The height adjustability should be electric, not crank-style, because it’s too time consuming to crank the desk up and down several times throughout the day – people just won’t do it.  A good sit-stand ratio to follow throughout the day is 45-60 minutes of sitting, followed by 15-20 minutes of standing.  If that’s the case, you will be adjusting your desk up to 10 times a day so you want it to be quick and painless.

When choosing a height adjustable desk, it’s important to measure the height you need your keyboard and mouse at for neutral posture.  Sit in your chair with your feet flat on the ground and your knees and hips at 90 degrees of flexion (you may need to adjust the height of your chair).  Place your elbows at 90 degree angles, your forearms parallel to the ground, and your wrists straight.  Have someone measure from just below your hands to the floor for your keyboard sit height.  Do the same for standing.  Then make sure that the desk will lower to the sit height and rise to the stand height.  This is important because height adjustable desks sometimes don’t lower enough.

There is another option if you don’t want to or can’t replace your desk.  They are sit-stand conversion stations that attach to your desk, and raise the monitor and keyboard simultaneously when you switch from sitting to standing and back.  One good example is the Ergotron Work-Fit S.  Once again, make sure to measure your keyboard sit height and stand height because not all conversion stations lower the keyboard enough.

Working at a height adjustable desk can do wonders for your posture, your body, and your productivity.  With the amount that society sits at a desk all day, it’s something we cannot afford to go without.

Tips to help you sit less

office workers

Much has been in the media lately about the dangers of sitting… or more accurately, the danger of not being active.  Computers and other screen devices have brought our lives to a grinding halt, literally.  We sit, slouch, and lie more than we stand and walk; as a result, our health and mortality are paying the price.

Sedentary time – Biswas et al – January 2015

Research out of Toronto, Canada has discovered that sedentary behavior has been associated with:

  • A 15 to 20 % higher risk of death from any cause;
  • A 15 to 20 % higher risk of heart disease, death from heart disease, cancer, death from cancer;
  • As much as a 90 per cent increased risk of developing diabetes;

… and for the worst news, this is all after adjusting for regular exercise.

But all is not lost!  There are many opportunities for increasing your activity during the day, all of which are quite easy to do.  Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Move around often when sitting – change position, straighten and bend your joints, fidget, anything that is movement;
  • Walk every hour and stand every 20 minutes;
  • Use a sit-stand desk – sit for 45 minutes and stand for 15 every hour;
  • Stand and/or walk during meetings, phone calls, while reading documents, or any time you can;
  • Take the stairs whenever you can during your day;
  • Walk or bike to work;
  • Park your car in the furthest parking spot;
  • Use your lunch hour to do something fun – take a kickboxing or Zumba class, get a walking group going, window shop without stopping;
  • Do a stretch for every body part each hour of your day;
  • Get up every second commercial when watching TV;
  • Walk your dog every night – or borrow somebody else’s!

If you have any other ideas for movement, please share below.  Everyone can benefit from a more active life.

10 signs you’re ready for an ergonomics evaluation

Have you been mulling over what to do about the nagging pain in your [insert pain here: neck/back/shoulder/wrist/thumb/all of the above]?  You may be wondering if an ergonomics evaluation may help you.  Here’s a list of 10 things to help you decide if an evaluation is right for you:

  1. Your pain gets worse at work
  • If your pain intensifies while you’re at work, it’s a pretty good sign that work is contributing to your pain. Even if your pain was caused by an injury outside of work, your pain can be aggravated by the movements you do at work.
  1. Your pain subsides over the night and/or weekend
  • If you feel better once you stop working for the day, or you feel better on the weekends after not working, this is also indicative work may be causing or aggravating your pain.
  1. You used to have sporadic pain, but now your pain is constant
  • If you had pain that used to come and go, but now does not go away, it’s time to do something about it. Unfortunately, things won’t get better from here and will likely get worse.  Intervention through therapy or an ergonomics evaluation is needed.
  1. Your workstation doesn’t feel “right”
  • Maybe when you sit down to work at your computer, you just don’t feel comfortable. Or maybe when you stand at your workstation, things feel off.  A lot of the time, it’s because the heights and distances in your workstation are not right for you.  For example, the monitor might be too far away, the chair tilted the wrong way, the height of your desk or workstation might be too high, etc.  Try changing heights and distances to increase comfort and consider an evaluation if you can’t get it right.
  1. You spend a lot of time at work doing one thing
  • Do you spend all day at the computer? All day standing in an assembly plant?  All day walking in a factory?  Unfortunately, too much of one posture or movement is not good for your body.  It will protest because it’s hard to use the same muscles to do the same thing all the time.  Try alternating the tasks you do during the day if you can.  Otherwise think about having an evaluation so that you can learn how to make some changes in your work habits.
  1. Your work involves repetitive motion
  • People who spend most of the day keyboarding, mousing, assembling, lifting, or any other type of work that involves the same motion over and over are at risk for pain and injury. When you keyboard all day, the muscles in your hands, wrists, and fingers get overused.  When you lift, the muscles in your back are at risk because they keep working with no breaks doing the same thing.  Try to eliminate the repetitive motion at work – an evaluation can help you with this as well.
  1. Your work puts you in awkward postures
  • An awkward posture is where your joints are out of neutral and subsequently puts you at risk for injury. For example, if you are typing, it is best to keep your wrists straight as this is neutral posture.  If you bend your wrists upward because your keyboard is too high or too slanted, you are now in an awkward posture.  Your body does not like this one bit – even very minimal bending in a body joint can cause some people quite a bit of pain.  Try to eliminate the awkward postures in your work and have an evaluation if you can’t get them all.
  1. Your work involves either too much activity or not enough
  • Some people don’t get enough activity and are sitting all day. Some people get too much activity walking, bending, and reaching all day.  Neither scenario is great and it puts you at a greater risk of injury.  See what you can do about increasing or decreasing your activity during your breaks and leisure time.  An evaluation can help you target what the problem is and what to do about it.
  1. You are going for physical/chiropractic/massage therapy and you are not getting better
  • Getting therapy for your pain is a great idea, but sometimes it’s all for naught when you go to work. For example, if you are having therapy because of neck pain and you go to work where your monitor is too high; therapy is not going to work as well as it could unless you get that monitor lowered.  An evaluation can pinpoint all the areas that could be causing your pain.
  1. You have tried ergonomics equipment, but it has not helped
  • Some people go ahead and get an ergonomic mouse or a split keyboard, only to find that it does not help their pain. I find it’s better to have an evaluation first before spending money on equipment.  Many times it’s cheaper to have an evaluation because you might not even need equipment, just a workstation adjustment.  And if it’s found that equipment is needed, the right kind with the right features will be recommended for you during the evaluation.  Most importantly, an ergonomics evaluation will involve key components that equipment alone won’t provide – help with adjusting your posture, making sure the heights and distances are correct for you, and guidance on how to pace yourself during the day.

The best ergonomics tip – relax at work

Man Relaxing At Office Desk In a Green Field

Over the years of assessing people at work, I have noticed one important factor that rings true every time: people who are relaxed while working rarely get injured. These are the people who sit at their computers in a laid-back posture looking very untroubled. Their shoulders are low and slack, not hunched up; their back is against the backrest; their head and neck are loose, not peering forward into the computer; and their legs are stretched out in a relaxed posture. These people sometimes start to have aches and pains, but they make the necessary adjustments to stop them. Maybe they change the height of their monitor, maybe they alternate hands when mousing, maybe they use more keyboard shortcuts, maybe they try a different chair, etc. They usually keep trying a lot of different things and mix their working postures up too. They may slouch, stand, or use a laptop for half an hour in an arm chair or bean bag. They also take lots of breaks – they get water, coffee, and snacks; they chat with other people; and they go for walks outside.

And just in case it sounds like these people weren’t getting their work done, the opposite was actually true. They worked just as hard, if not harder, when they were chilling out. Maybe they had more energy to work from keeping their body loose, or maybe they were more productive because their bodies weren’t being distracted by nagging aches and pains.

It turns out my theory has been researched and proven as well. An article titled “Work technique and its consequences for musculoskeletal disorders” found that workers who had a forward neck flexion and raised arms ended up with more neck and shoulder problems. Those who had a dynamic pattern of movements were less likely to be injured.

So some of my best ergonomics advice … relax at work. Here are some things to try:

  • Keep your whole body loose. To see what relaxed feels like, tense up your muscles, take a deep breath and let them loose. Do this frequently throughout the day.
  • Pretend you’re on the couch watching TV or a movie. That’s exact feeling of relaxation you want when working.
  • Change your posture often. Try different things. Don’t be afraid to slouch or twist, just as long as you keep moving and don’t spend too much time in one posture or the other.
  • Take breaks.
  • Go for a walk.
  • Do range of motion exercises. Rotate your arms around your shoulder sockets. Alternate raising your knees to your hips when standing. Flex and extend your wrists.
  • Micropause. While waiting for your computer to load, relax your arms.
  • Deep breathe constantly. Even one deep breath gives you a feeling of instant relaxation.

Please leave a comment if you have any other tips on how to relax!

How to reduce finger, thumb, hand, wrist, elbow and arm pain

With the advent of today’s technology, we are using our hands and arms more than ever and in very different ways. Tablets, smartphones, and computers have changed the way that we work, play, and live. The technology is great, but the pain we experience from it, is not so great. It’s not surprising that we feel pain – there are many ergonomic risk factors associated with our devices:

  • Force – from holding our phones and tablets;
  • Repetition – the same movements of keyboarding, mousing, swiping, and pointing are performed over and over;
  • Awkward posture – how we hold our phones and tablets, as well as incorrect set up at the computer;
  • Overuse – the sheer amount of time we use our devices for work and play;
  • Static posture – staying in one place while using our devices, as well as holding our devices with one hand position for too long;
  • Contact stress – our phones and tablets digging into our hands, desk contact while keyboarding and mousing.

But our devices don’t have to cause us pain if we follow a few simple rules:

  1. Prop it up – Force from gripping and awkward wrist postures can be greatly reduced by letting go of your tablet or phone. Prop it up on a stand, or a pillow on your lap, or your backpack/briefcase.
  2. Elbows free – Nerves run through your elbows and can be aggravated with the pressure of leaning. Pain and tingling (“pins and needles”) can start here and travel down to your hands. Keep your elbows free and try not to lean them on anything, no matter how soft.
  3. Hands free or switch hands – Use your earbuds when speaking on your phone or remember to switch hands and ears often. The same elbow pain can result here from bending your elbow and holding it up for too long.
  4. Use all your fingers to type – Try to avoid typing with your thumbs only on a tablet. Many tablets are too big for comfortable typing with your thumbs – pressure is placed into your palm and your thumbs really have to reach to type some keys. Place the tablet down flat to type or set it up with an external keyboard.
  5. Keep it straight – Make sure all your joints are in neutral. Don’t have your thumbs extended down, keep your wrists straight, keep your elbows in-between (not completely straight, and not completely bent).
  6. Switch it up – Avoid using one set of muscles for too long. If you usually text with your thumbs, switch to typing with one finger to take pressure off your thumbs. If you usually hold your phone or tablet in your left hand and swipe/point with your left, switch it up and hold with your right and swipe/point with your left (it’s easier than it sounds!) If you point with your index finger, use another finger instead. If you use certain keys constantly when typing, try other keyboard shortcuts to take pressure off those fingers. If you use your mouse too much, try replacing some movements with keyboard short cuts.
  7. Move constantly – Don’t stay in one position for too long. Move around in your chair or on the couch or stand up. Keep moving your phone and tablet around in your hands. Reach your hands to the sky and stretch up, rotate your shoulders and wrists. Perform any movement you can – just keep moving!
  8. Mini breaks – Incorporate mini breaks into your posture constantly. For example, don’t hover your hand over your mouse when your reading your screen – rest it instead; put your phone or tablet down while it’s loading – look up and give your neck a break from looking down; during breaks in keyboarding – put your hands in your lap.
  9. Shorter, more frequent is better – If you are using your device for a long period of time, it’s better to use it in short stints with breaks in-between. A good rule of thumb is 15 minutes on, 1-2 minutes off.
  10. Less is more – Of course the best thing your can do is use your devices less. Spending the day at work on the computer and then spending the rest of your day on your phone or tablet is just too much device time. Ditch the device as often as you can!

The 1% six week plan

There is a popular concept right now called the “aggregation of marginal gains”.  The founder behind this concept is Dave Brailsford, General Manager and Performance Director for Team Sky (Great Britain’s professional cycling team).  The aggregation of marginal gains is explained as “the 1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do.”  Back in 2010, Brailsford believed that if the members of Team Sky could make 1% improvements in every area of cycling, that overall these gains would add up to significant improvement.  And it did – in three years’ time, Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky won the Tour de France, and the following year, his teammate, Chris Froome, continued the winning streak.

This concept is a great one for implementing ergonomics into your daily life.  Good ergonomics comes from many small changes in habit that add up to measurable benefit.  Many people turn to ergonomics for a quick fix which can occur sometimes, but the biggest gains come from the small changes in habit you make every day.

To improve your work habits using the 1% rule, it’s best to tackle one habit at a time and master each improvement before you move on to the next one.  That way the changes don’t become overwhelming and your mind and body have time to get used to things and solidify the new good habits.

One drawback of the 1% rule is not seeing the positive results quickly.  Due to our human nature, it’s much more satisfying to have an immediate fix, than to inch towards something.  But if your can track your gains towards an achievable outcome – pain-free work at your desk – you can see your progress and feel excited about achieving your goal.  Remember, incrementally you developed poor desk habits, now it’s time to incrementally get rid of them.

The best way to see your gains and to achieve your outcome is to follow a goal schedule.  That way you can see your improvement and it keeps you on track to achieve that perfect ergonomics set up.

Here’s a sample schedule for office work you can follow:

 

Week Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
1 Imagine you are a puppet with a string on top of your head – sit up straight     Set a timer and get up from your desk every hour  
2   Learn a keyboard shortcut to reduce mouse use     Stop cradling your phone between your shoulder and neck
3     Set a timer and change position in your chair every 15 minutes    
4 Stop hovering your hands over your keyboard and mouse – relax when reading the screen     Learn a keyboard shortcut to reduce mouse use  
5   Limit your tablet and smartphone use – 10 minutes per session and 60 minutes total per day     Don’t perch on your chair – sit with your back against your back rest
6   Learn a keyboard shortcut to reduce mouse use     Go for a walk at lunchtime

 

If you’ve already mastered a habit, congratulations! – move on to the next one.  If you can’t master a habit in the number of days allotted, take a few more days and make sure you get it right.  Add to this schedule as needed and leave a comment about your tip to help others.

If you can stick with it and make those gains regularly, your meaningful change will definitely come your way.  Every 1% eventually adds up to 100.