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!


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.

The paleo lifestyle and ergonomics

I recently read an article that included ergonomics as part of the paleolithic lifestyle.  At first I was baffled – how does changing your diet to eat like a caveman correspond with ergonomics?  But as I did some more research, I found out more about the paleo lifestyle and I agree that ergonomics does play a part.

The paleolithic lifestyle has arisen from the thought that it is more natural for humans to live like cavemen did for millions of years than how we live now in the Neolithic or agriculture era which has only been around for 10,000 years.  It is thought that if we adopt the lifestyle of a hunter-gatherer, there will be less obesity, cardiovascular disease, allergies, depression, and chronic stress due to healthier foods and being more active.

One of the cornerstones of ergonomics training is not to stay in one position or movement for too long.   The body is meant to be active in a variety of postures and movements, and staying in one position or movement for too long causes health problems.  These problems stem namely from reduction in blood circulation (which results in muscle cramping and strain on the tissues of the body) and from overuse (repetitively stressing the muscles, tendons, ligaments, etc. of the body).  On a longer term basis, this can result in musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome and chronic low back pain as well as diseases such as obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease.

So what can you do to adopt a more paleo lifestyle using ergonomics?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Move – If you sit all day, take standing breaks.  If you stand all day, take sitting breaks.  People who work in an office environment on the computer should get up from their chairs every 30 minutes.  People who stand at work should have a place to sit down every 30-60 minutes to give their bodies a break.  These breaks in posture don’t have to be long – even 30 seconds helps – but they do have to be as frequent as possible.  They should also involve additional body movement – circle your shoulders, swing your arms, and twist from side to side.
  • Change position – If you can’t get away from your chair, move in your chair.  Sit forward, sit back, cross your legs, uncross your legs, slouch, sit up, lift your bum off the chair and lower to one side or the other.  If you have to keep standing, move your hips around, raise one knee up at a time, swing legs to the side or across the body.  Don’t forget your neck, shoulders, and arms – raise, lower, circle, and stretch.
  • Change, add, or take away equipment – People who sit all day should consider a sit-stand workstation so they can change positions.  Another option is sitting on an exercise ball for 10 minutes out of every hour (I don’t recommend using an exercise ball exclusively because using it for too long puts a strain on your back muscles).  People who stand in one place all day should consider using a 6 inch footrest so they can prop up one foot or the other periodically during the day.  If you can, go barefoot or shoeless occasionally.
  • Surround yourself with nature – Wherever you work, try to involve nature.  Bring plants or rock arrangements to your workplace.  Hang pictures of mountains, forests, or the ocean – even pictures have been found to provide the healing effects of nature.  Go for a walk during your lunch break – try to go where there are lots of trees, grass, rocks, or water.  Make sure to bask in the sun for a bit too.

I’m sure everyone can agree that anything that we can do to help prevent disease is worth trying.  The paleo philosophy of keeping active and staying in tune with nature corresponds with the ergonomic principle of working in a variety of different postures and movements – these are things I think we can all see the benefit in.

Carpal tunnel syndrome – causes and solutions

Part 3 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 hand/wrist injuries and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) was this:

1.  Evidence of Work-Relatedness (++) between highly repetitive work and CTS (repetitive work was defined as activities which involve continuous arm movements which affect the hand and wrist area); between forceful work and CTS (forceful work was defined as powerful wrist or hand movements, which generate loads to hand and wrist area) and between vibration and CTS (vibration primarily from hand tools).  Strong Evidence of Work-Relatedness (+++) between exposure to a combination of risk factors (repetition, force, vibration and posture).

  • Meatpackers, poultry processors, and automobile assembly workers were found to be the most at risk here.
  • Ergonomic tools, rest breaks for warming up, and redesign of tasks with a consideration on automation would all help here in reducing CTS.
2.  Evidence of Work-Relatedness (++) between any single factor (repetition, force, and posture) and hand/wrist tendinitis
  • Industry workers in manufacturing plants for electronics, sewing, and appliances are at a high risk.  Office workers are also at a risk with continuous keyboarding and mousing.
  • Changing the way tasks are completed, job rotation with differing tasks, and proper heights and postures for keyboarding and mousing would all be good ergonomic interventions.
3.  Strong Evidence of Work-Relatedness (+++) between high level exposure to hand-arm vibration and hand-arm vibration syndrome
  • Forestry workers and stone drillers/cutters would have high levels of vibration in their jobs.
  • Tools with lower levels of vibration and vibration-reducing gloves would help here.

I will continue with further body parts in my next post – identifying further jobs where there may be risks and providing guidelines for ergonomic intervention.