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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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!

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.

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.

The Importance of Training

I once did an evaluation with a client who was having neck and shoulder pain in her office administration job.  At the completion of the assessment, we discussed what type of equipment might be best for her, such as a keyboard tray and a document holder.  We also spoke at length about her posture and how it could be improved; about her work habits and how she could be better about rest breaks; about her work procedures and how she needs to relax her neck and shoulders while typing; and about her leisure time and how she could avoid activities in her daily life that were affecting her neck and shoulders (e.g. using the computer at night after using it all day).  When I contacted her a few weeks later to see how she was doing and if she had received her equipment yet, she responded that based on changing her posture, her work habits, her work procedures, and daily activities; she felt much better and did not feel she even needed the equipment recommended for her.

I always think of this client when I go over “training” with other clients in office environments.  Training is a good catch-all term for all the things I mentioned above plus other things such as exercise, nutrition, and stress reduction techniques.  Here is a list of my top 10 training tips for office work:

  1. Alternate tasks throughout the day – If you can, break up your computer work with other tasks such as attending meetings or reading.  If you only do computer work, be vigilant about taking breaks.
  2. Have good posture – Feet flat on the ground; legs, hips, and elbows at 90 degrees of flexion; elbows close to your torso; wrists straight; shoulders pulled back and relaxed; and head lined up over neck.  Be like a puppet – imagine a string at the top of your head pulling you up to the ceiling.  Everything will fall into place perfectly.
  3. Change position frequently – Use the good posture described above, but let’s face it, you won’t be able to maintain that posture all day, nor should you.  Your body needs movement and different postures.  So sometimes you will slouch and lean forward, and that’s okay for a bit.  Just remember to come back to your good posture more often than not.  And don’t forget to move around in your chair – that helps too.
  4. Get up – Get up often and walk – every hour at minimum.  Set a timer so you won’t forget.  Stretch and move your arms, wrists, and hands at the same time.  At the very least, stand at your desk and get your blood moving.
  5. Relax your shoulders – Everyone has the tendency to hunch their shoulders when working at the computer, especially when they’re on a deadline.  Practice relaxing your shoulders as much as possible.  Try this:  Hunch your shoulders up as high as they will go while inhaling.  Hold your breath and your shoulders for three seconds.  Relax your shoulders as much as you can and breathe out deeply.  You will feel a difference immediately.
  6. Relax your arms – Don’t extend your arms at all when you are typing.  Keep your elbows close to your sides and let your upper arm hang loosely from your shoulder socket.  A good way to accomplish this is to pull your chair close to the desk while typing.
  7. Reduce overtime hours – Your body was not meant to be a computer all day.  It will rebel in the form of discomfort and possibly injuries.  Try not to work more than an 8-hour day to reduce your risk of injury.  If you must work longer, take 5-minute breaks every hour and a 30-minute break every four hours.  Your body will thank you.
  8. Don’t hover – Try not to hover your hands over your keyboard or mouse.  When you are not typing or mousing, put your hands in your lap or do light exercises with them.   A good exercise is letting your hands fall to your sides and lightly make fists in and out while you are reading your computer screen.
  9. Eat and drink – Eat small nutritious snacks or meals every 3-4 hours to maintain your blood sugar at a good level.  Sip water throughout the day to keep hydrated.  Without proper fuel, your body will become sluggish.
  10. Beat stress – Every so often, sit back in your chair and regroup.  Close your eyes and take three big, deep breaths and gain focus and perspective on your work.  Feel a sense of power and control over your work and your working habits.  Know that you are only one person and can only do so much.  Be happy with what you are doing.

Implementing these tips and practicing them often is like training for a marathon.  If you run often, run well with good posture, take breaks, and eat and drink well; you will achieve your goal.  Training is essential – never overlook it.  Good luck!

Ergonomics in Wellness Programs

Company wellness programs are a great way for companies to help their employees get and stay healthy.  Some common themes in wellness programs include helping employees lose weight, eat healthier, stop smoking, and engage in regular exercise.  These goals affect the “internal environment” of the employee and can aid in reducing illness and disease, as well as help the employee feel good and be more productive.  But what about the “external environment” of the employee?  Has this been adequately addressed in company wellness programs?

The Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace (CPH-NEW) is investigating that question and feels that a more total health effort will result in greater success of wellness programs.  Dr. Laura Punnett, PhD, University of Massachusetts Lowell is part of the team that is investigating merging occupational health measures with wellness programs.  Dr. Punnett writes a very convincing scientific rationale for including ergonomics in wellness programs:  http://www.uml.edu/docs/CPH_News_1_Punnett_9-19-07LINKS_tcm18-40745.pdf

More research needs to be done, but there is evidence that changing work organization (e.g. work schedules, how a task is done) through ergonomics principles can increase an employee’s feeling of contributing to the work process (known as decision latitude).  Improving decision latitude has been found to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, mental health problems, and possibly play a role in reducing musculoskeletal injuries.  Most importantly in this article, Dr. Punnett states that wellness programs primarily address individual issues, but often do not uncover the root cause of the problem.

With this, I wholeheartedly agree.  To achieve total employee wellness, both internal and external environments need to be addressed.  Also based on preliminary evidence, internal and external environments may be linked more closely than once thought and may prove to be complementary.  For example, an employee may be having trouble quitting smoking.  He cites stress at work which has arisen since new changes have been made in his job as an assembly line worker.  These changes include decreasing the time it should take him to complete his task and use of a new tool that is causing hand pain.  If these issues are not addressed, stress will continue and smoking will too.  Using the ergonomics principles of changing task rate and improving the ergonomics of tools will help to mitigate stress and affect smoking cessation positively.

So if you are participating in a wellness program, make sure that all your needs are met.  That your goals to eat healthier are complemented by an ergonomics evaluation, and that your increase in exercise is combined with changing the way you work through posture improvements and more effective rest breaks.  With a total health approach, we can achieve a happier lifestyle with less stress and a greater experience in our working lives.