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!


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.

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!

Computer Vision Syndrome and Ergonomics

As technology increases and there is more and more screen time from computers, phones, and tablets; our eyes will be one of several areas in the body that will suffer the price.  Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS) is defined by the American Optometric Association as “a group of eye and vision-related problems that result from prolonged computer use”.  They list the symptoms of CVS as:

  • Eye irritation (Dry eyes, itchy eyes, red eyes)
  • Blurred vision
  • Headaches
  • Backaches
  • Neck aches
  • Muscle fatigue

Many causes of CVS are thought to be from poor ergonomics.  Here are some ergonomics risk factors that might contribute to CVS:

  1. Using a computer screen – Computer screens are made up of pixels which are essentially dots of light.  Dots of light don’t have borders that are clearly defined, making it hard for your eyes to focus on them.  This can lead to eyestrain, more so than reading on paper does.  A research article, “Effects of Display Resolution on Visual Performance” by Martina Ziefle finds that reading performance is significantly better with paper than with screen and that reaction times and visual fatigue increased with lower resolution screens (less pixels per inch).
  2. Glare on your screen – Glare can be caused by direct sources, e.g. the sun shining on your screen; or by indirect sources, e.g. light reflection off of the screen from a light or a window or from a surface such as a desk or a wall.  If you have glare on your screen, you won’t be able to see what you’re working on very well.  This can result in squinting, eye fatigue, and muscle cramping from moving your head, neck, shoulders, and back to avoid the glare.
  3. Screen too dark or too light – It is hard for the eyes to adjust to areas of high contrast.  For example, it would be hard on the eyes to have a really bright screen in a dark room or a poorly lit screen in front of a bright window.  Putting strain on your eyes like this could result in headaches and fatigue.
  4. Sitting too close or too far away from your screen – If you sit too close to your screen, it is hard for your eyes to focus which results in eye strain.  If you sit too far away, you will squint, strain, and move forward to see the screen.  This can result in eyestrain and muscle fatigue associated with leaning forward.
  5. Using too small of a font – Many people work with fonts that are too small for their eyes to see.  When fonts are too small, you will lean forward and strain your eyes so you can see.
  6. Using the screen for too long without a break – If you focus on your screen for a long period of time, your eyes will be strained from looking at the same focal point.  Your eyes need to vary in the distance they look at throughout the day so they get a break.
  7. Using the screen for too long without blinking– Studies show that computer uses blink less when working on a computer than they would normally.  Blinking less results in dry, irritated eyes.
  8. Wearing improper glasses or contacts – Wearing glasses or contacts that don’t allow your eyes to focus properly will result in eyestrain and blurred vision.

Now that you know what can cause CVS, here are some ergonomics tips for avoiding it:

  • Use as high a resolution screen as you can.  Alternate computer work with other tasks to avoid prolonged exposure.
  • Place your screen perpendicular (at a right angle) to the window for the least amount of glare.
  • Tilt your monitor down slightly to reduce glare from overhead lights.
  • Use opaque blinds to block sun from your screen.  Make sure the blinds block out all the sun – rays can creep through the perimeter of the blind.
  • To allow natural light in without glare, used vertical blinds for east/west facing windows, and horizontal blinds for north/south windows.
  • Check surfaces for glare.  Change surfaces to light-coloured, matte surfaces if possible.
  • Adjust your monitor brightness for the type of light you’re in.
  • If you have control over the amount of lighting, reduce the lighting for computer work.
  • Avoid large contrast changes around your screen.  Don’t place your monitor in front of the window and don’t use your smartphone in bright sunlight.
  • Sit an arm’s length away from your monitor.  Sit a bit farther away for larger screens.
  • Look to a far distance beyond your computer monitor (beyond 20 feet) every 20 minutes for at least 5 seconds.  Then close your eyes for 5 seconds to reduce dryness.
  • Increase your font as much as you need to see properly.
  • Get your eyes checked regularly and keep glasses and contact prescriptions updated.  Inform your doctor about your screen habits.
  • Monitor your screen habits.  The more time you spend in front of a screen, the greater your chance for CVS.

Luckily, CVS is not thought to cause any permanent damage to the eyes.  By making the changes above, your eyes should be happy and healthy and back to normal in no time.  Screen time is great, but not when it affects your vision.

Computer use in vehicles

Before starting, it must be made clear that the computer use in vehicles I will be referring to is when the vehicles are parked and turned off.  Not by any means should a computer ever be used while a vehicle is in operation. 

Computers are used in vehicles by workers on the road for delivery or monitoring, e.g. police, firefighters, home care professionals, couriers, etc.  Information related to the delivery or monitoring usually needs to be entered as soon as possible into a laptop or tablet.  And while this is a timely and efficient way to input data, it unfortunately results a poor ergonomics setup.  So while an “office-in-a-vehicle” can never be completely ergonomically designed, improvements can be made.

In terms of where to put your laptop or tablet while in your vehicle, we can look at a study from Marquette University in Wisconsin where researchers tested out four different scenarios for mounting a laptop in a vehicle.  Results were as follows “Placing the mobile computer closer to the steering wheel reduced low back and shoulder muscle activity. Joint angles of the shoulders, elbows, and wrists were also closer to neutral angle. Biomechanical modeling revealed substantially less spinal compression and trunk muscle force.” (Biomechanical Effects of Mobile Computer Location in a Vehicle Cab;  So instead of placing your laptop on the passenger seat, it is much better to have it mounted beside the steering wheel to reduced twisting and awkward postures.

Here are some other tips for working in the car/truck:

  • Pull your shoulders back and keep upper back straight and flat (to reduce strain to back and shoulder muscles)
  • Sit with your back against the car seat (to provide support to your back muscles)
  • Relax shoulders – avoid elevating or “hunching” shoulders (to reduce strain on neck and shoulders)
  • Relax elbows close to torso – do not extend your arms in front of you (to reduce strain on your shoulders)
  • If present, adjust the lumbar support in your seat (the lumbar support should rest at the curve of your low back).
  • Use a laptop or tablet stand on your lap if your laptop or tablet is not mounted (to reduce neck strain)
  • Use headset or speakerphone at all times (to reduce strain to the neck and shoulders from cradling the phone)
  • Keep wrists neutral when keyboarding and mousing, i.e. keep wrists straight (to reduce wrist strain)

And finally, keep data entry in the vehicle to a minimum.  Save longer tasks for when you’re in the office with a better ergonomic setup.  Mobile computing is useful and important, but it shouldn’t leave with you ergonomic injuries.

Screen time overload

How many peoples’ day goes something like this?  You get up in the morning, shower, have breakfast, and in-between you check your emails and the news using a computer, laptop, tablet or phone.  Then you go to work, during which time you are likely using your phone or tablet if you go by subway or train.  While you are at work, you spend a large amount of time on the computer.  Really when you add it up, you are on the computer 90% of your day, 95% if you eat lunch at your desk and use the computer then too.  Then you commute home with more screen time.  Eat dinner, and then likely some more screen time after dinner, and maybe even more screen time with your tablet in bed.  Then you go to bed and start it all again the next day.

Unfortunately this type of day brings the risk factor “overuse” into overdrive.  Your body cannot get a break from screen time and these parts of your body start to suffer:

  • Eyes – strain from looking at screens all day
  • Neck – from bending your head over your phone or tablet
  • Shoulders – from holding your phone or tablet and when using your laptop or computer
  • Forearms, fingers, and thumbs – from using your muscles to type, mouse, swipe, point, etc.
  • Wrists – from holding your phone or tablet

 Overuse isn’t the only risk factor.  These risk factors also come into play:

  • Force and contact stress– from gripping your phone or tablet
  • Repetitive motion and awkward postures– in the neck, forearms, wrists, fingers, and thumbs
  • Static postures – in the back, hips, and legs from sitting/being inactive too long

So what can you do?  The most important thing is to take frequent breaks from screen time.  Check your emails and the news in the morning, but limit your time to 10-15 minutes.  Don’t use your phone or tablet during your whole commute –listen to music or an audio book and give your hands a break.  Get up from your desk every hour at work – walk around the office, shake out your hands, rotate your wrists,  loosen up your neck (bring your ear to each shoulder and look over your shoulder on each side a few times).  Don’t each lunch at your desk or at the very least, don’t spend your whole lunch hour there – take a walk outside or socialize with co-workers.  Limit your screen time at home too.  Watch TV or movies so your arms are relaxed.  Or better yet, get away from all screens – take a walk, listen to music, play with your children or dog, do yoga, go for a bike ride, or just chill.  Take a break from screen time and your body will thank you.

Low back pain– causes and solutions

Part 4 in a Series

In 1997, NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) released a publication called Musculoskeletal Disorders and Workplace Factors, A Critical Review of Epidemiologic Evidence for Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders of the Neck, Upper Extremity, and Low Back . Although this report over 20 years old, the valuable information about what causes work-related injuries remains current.


One of the most interesting parts of the report is the evidence of work-relatedness to injuries.  From the 40 epidemiologic studies they evaluated, NIOSH judged how strong they felt the evidence was that the injury or musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) was caused by the ergonomic risk factor.   Ergonomic risk factors include:  force, repetition, awkward postures, and static postures to name a few.  The categories they used were:

  • Strong Evidence of Work-Relatedness (+++) – a causal relationship
  • Evidence of Work-Relatedness (++) – convincing epidemiologic evidence for a causal relationship
  • Insufficient Evidence of Work-Relatedness (+/0) – could not conclude the presence or absence of a causal relationship
  • Evidence of No Effect of Work Factors (-) – the specific risk factor is not related to MSDs

What they found for low back pain (LBP) was this:

  1. Evidence of Work-Relatedness (++) between back disorders and heavy physical work
  • For example, baggage handlers perform heavy physical work.
  • Ergonomic interventions that would help would be limits on baggage weight, use of hand carts, and proper lifting techniques.
  • Additional information on baggage handling can be found here:


  1. Strong Evidence of Work-Relatedness (+++) between back disorders and forceful movements
  • Construction workers perform forceful movements.
  • A spring assisted or pneumatic finishing tool for drywalling, half bags of cement, and hydraulic lifts are some good ergonomic solutions.
  • More ergonomic solutions can be found here:


  1. Evidence of Work-Relatedness (++) between back disorders and work related awkward postures


  1. Strong Evidence of Work-Relatedness (+++) between back disorders and whole body vibration
  • Crane operators would be at risk here.
  • Tires should be inflated properly, the seat suspension adjusted, and posture should be changed frequently throughout the day.


Proper research in ergonomics helps us determine what things at work cause more injuries.  Future research will clarify evidence even further so that new ergonomic interventions and recommendations can be made.  I hope these posts have helped you determine what causes injury at your work and that you have been able to take the steps needed to correct problems.