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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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.

Advice for DIY computer ergonomics

Elemental-Ergonomics-Graphic-USE-THIS

I think most of us have seen this type of ergonomics graphic that depicts the proper heights and distances for computer users.  Although this graphic can be helpful, it can be limiting too.  I’m all for people trying to improve their computer workstation ergonomics on their own using this graphic, but I do have a few words of advice to help you along:

If you change the height of one thing, you need to change everything else too.

  • For example, say you lowered your chair so your feet could be flat on the floor.  You then need to change the height of your keyboard and mouse so that your forearms are parallel and your elbows are at 90 degree angles.  Following that you need to adjust the height of your monitor so that your eyes are level with the top of the screen.  Get a coworker to help you by looking at you from the side and so you achieve the right heights

Even a few millimeters or 1/8th of an inch can make a difference when you’re making height adjustments.

  • Getting your keyboard at the exact position for you is an art.  You want to make sure your shoulders are completely relaxed, and your forearms and wrists are as straight as possible.  Raising or lowering from your perfect position can causes aches and pains right away or over time.  Make a small mark on your desk or wall to make sure you have the right position every time.

Even a few millimeters or 1/8th of an inch can make a difference when you’re making depth adjustments.

  • Achieving the proper lumbar support is important.  If you don’t get it right, you can end up with increased back pain.  Many chairs have pre-molded lumbar support that unfortunately cannot be adjusted.  If you have the means, adjustability in the form of an air pump feature in your chair is the best because you can inflate and deflate the lumbar support to the right depth for you.  A height adjustable backrest will help you get the proper positioning so that the curve of your low back is supported.

Monitor positioning is different for bifocal, trifocal and progressive lens use

  • If you wear bifocals, trifocals or progressive lenses, the monitor is best 2-3 inches lower than recommended.  That’s because you read out of the bottom of your lens and having the monitor at the “correct height” will result in neck discomfort from your chin tilting up.  Once again, height is crucial so keep playing with the height until you get it right.

Buying random “ergonomic” computer equipment is a game of roulette.

  • If you have wrist pain and buy a split keyboard or a new mouse hoping it will help, there’s a chance it will, there’s a chance it won’t, and there’s a chance you can make your pain worse.  Also what’s termed ergonomic is always the case.  Sometimes the word ergonomics is thrown in for marketing purposes.  You can keep buying and trying stuff, but it’s better to get advice from a certified ergonomics consultant.  It will save you money in the long run.

Looking at the graphic can’t help you with unique postures.

  • Leaning on an armrest, tilting your head to the side, or peering into the screen with your chin jutted out – these are all postures that aren’t helping you, but you may not even be aware you are doing them.  If you do them too much, you can end up in pain.  Your coworker can help you here again by observing you during the day and pointing out these potential problems as they see them.

Looking at the graphic can’t help you with changing position.

  • Changing your position is the best thing you can do to help yourself ergonomically.  Make sure you move around in your chair as much as possible (even slouching and sitting forward on occasion) along with getting up and to stand, walk, or exercise.  Staying in the “proper ergonomic position” all day every day is not very good at all.  This graphic needs a picture of break time too!

Move it, will ya! Ergonomics served best active.

Of all the advice I can give as an ergonomics consultant, the best one is – change position frequently.  Here are some of the reasons why:

Your blood needs to move.  Blood is oxygenated and filled with healing agents for your body.  If you don’t move your body, blood doesn’t flow and your body can’t heal itself.  You could then end up with a Work Related Musculoskeletal Disorder (WMSD).

Your muscles need to move.  When you don’t move your muscles, they can’t rid themselves of waste material and toxins.  As a result, they seize up and get sore resulting in muscle cramps.  Also, your muscles shorten and get tight which puts pressure on your bones and nerves.  Tight hamstrings can cause sore backs; tight shoulder muscles can cause headaches.

Your spine needs to move.  After sitting or standing for long periods of time, your spine compresses.  Unfortunately with time, this compression can result in a herniated disc.

Your nerves need movement.  Without movement, nerves can become pinched nerves or result in a peripheral neuropathy like carpal tunnel syndrome which symptoms include hand tingling and pain

So how do you get in the habit of changing position frequently?  The first thing you need to do is get yourself a timer.  Use your phone or an online timer.  Set the timer for a maximum of 20 minutes, less if you can.  Every 20 minutes do one of the following.

1.  If you’re sitting, get up and walk for 20 seconds.

2.  If you’re standing, sit down for 20 seconds.

3.  Do a stretch – hold it for 30 seconds.

  • Put your right arm overhead and lean to the left.  Do the same with the left arm.
  • Grab the back of your office chair while sitting and twist to one side.  Twist to the other.
  • Stand, bend one leg behind you and grab your ankle to stretch the front of your thigh.  Repeat with the other leg.

4.  Do an exercise.

  • March in place.
  • Swing your arms around your body.
  • Hang your head and rotate from side to side.

5.  Change your position.

  • If you’re sitting against your backrest, lean forward and back a few times.
  • Push yourself up off your chair with your armrests, raising your hips off the chair seat.
  • If you’re standing, rest one leg on a footrest 6-8 inches above the ground.

Be creative!  Anything you can do to move your body will help.  Even the often-condemned slouching is a different position and is good for your body in small doses.  And don’t forget to keep at it.  Once you form the habit of moving, you’ll never go back to staying in one place.  And now that you’ve finished reading this, it’s time to move.

Computer ergonomics when working from home – Part 2

In my last post, I wrote about how to set up a more comfortable working environment at home by suggesting equipment and what heights and distances the equipment should be at.  In this post, I would like to speak about the second part of working at home ergonomics:  posture and work organization.  Here is a list of tips aimed at you and your body that will help you in the home office:

  1. Avoid “chicken neck” – Many people sit in front of the computer, leaning forward with their head and chin pulled into the monitor as though they can’t see it.  As you can imagine, this posture is very tough on the neck and shoulders.  First off, make sure your monitor is at the right distance – if it’s too far away, you can’t help but lean in to see it.  Then make sure the font is not too small, and increase it if it is.  And if those aren’t the problems, monitor your posture.  Set a timer and check for chicken neck every 15 minutes.
  2. Perfect posture – All you have to do to have impeccable posture is to imagine you are a puppet.  Pretend there is a string attached to the very top of your head and imagine that that string is pulling you up.  When this happens, you will automatically stop slouching, stop rounding your shoulders, and your chin and head will come into perfect alignment with your spine.  As with chicken neck, set a timer to be a puppet.
  3. Sit properly – Many people who work at home sit down in front of the computer periodically throughout the day “just to take care of a few things”.  This is all fine and good, but the problem is with how they sit which is usually perched on the front edge of their chair without resting their back against the backrest. Try to resist this posture because before you know it, you’ll be 15 minutes in and your back/neck will start protesting.  If you plan to be any longer than one minute at the computer, make the effort to sit down properly with your back against your back rest and your chair pulled in.
  4. Relax – Most people when they are rushed or are on a deadline will hunch up their shoulders and lean into the computer.  I think it makes us feel like we will work harder!  Try to relax instead and save the energy you put into that hunched up posture for work itself.
  5. Move around a lot – One of the luxuries of working at home is that you can take as many breaks as you want (as long as the work gets done of course!).  Take advantage of this by getting up from your chair frequently.  Go and fold that laundry for a standing and moving break, then come back to your desk.  Do a few yoga poses or just move:  circle your arms and roll your shoulders.  Don’t forget to take a short walk at lunch – this has physical, mental, emotional and social benefits all rolled into one.
  6. Avoid “hovering” – When you’re at the computer, there is a surprising amount of pause time when you are not keyboarding or mousing, but rather reading the screen or thinking.  During these pauses, many people hover their hands over the keyboard or mouse in anticipation of their next move.  Unfortunately this requires muscular effort when you could be resting your hands, wrists, and forearms and giving them a much needed break.  During these times, put your hands in your lap, down by your sides, or drape them over the keyboard and/or mouse so that they are completely relaxed.

As you can see, working from home does not have to be an ergonomic nightmare and can actually be beneficial.  Take advantage of the benefits that working from home offers to be happy, healthy, and injury free.

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.