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!


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 ergonomics when working from home – Part 1

In this day and age, people are working from home more and more often.  Some people work overtime on weeknights and weekends and some people work from home full-time and don’t go into an office at all.  There are definite pros for working at home such as taking breaks more often and eliminating a long commute, but there are cons too.  The most noticeable con is a working environment that is not ergonomically correct. Very rarely does ergonomics come to mind when putting a home workstation together – there is likely more concern about where space can be found!  For many people, there is no home workstation at all, but rather the kitchen table or the couch with their laptop.

So how can you put your home office together without breaking the bank?  Here are a few tips:

1.  Office chair – For full-time at-home workers, I don’t think there’s any way around not getting a good office chair.  There are too many hours in the day to be sitting on a hard, non-adjustable kitchen chair.  These are the minimum chair features you will need:

  • Height adjustability – For the most comfort, your feet should rest on the floor with your knees and hips at 90 degree angles.
  • Proper seat pan depth – For those with shorter legs, you will need a small seat pan.  You don’t want the backs of your knees coming in contact with the front of the seat or you will be uncomfortable and will end up sitting at the front of your chair.  For those with longer legs, you will need a larger seat so that your legs are supported fully.  For everyone, make sure there is 1-2 inches between the front of the chair and the back of your knees.
  • Height adjustable armrests that lower below the worksurface – Most chairs don’t have armrests that lower enough to fit under your desk or keyboard tray.  Sometimes it’s better not to have armrests at all.
  • Comfort – This is not a feature as much as how the chair feels to you.  Ideally you would be able to try the chair out at home for a few days before buying.
  • Extras – For greater comfort, try to get a chair with lumbar support and a height and angle adjustable backrest.

2.  Height adjustable worksurface – To reduce strain on your neck, shoulders, and back while using your keyboard; your elbows should be at your sides at a 90 degree angle with your forearms parallel to the floor.  Standard desks will be too high for most of the population, except maybe for those who are 6’6” or taller.  A great inexpensive solution is the Galant desk from Ikea – you can raise or lower the legs to the proper height for you.  However if you are shorter or taller than most people and if more than one person is using the workstation, a better choice would be a standard desk with a height and tilt adjustable keyboard tray

3.  Computer – Use a separate monitor and keyboard rather than a laptop.  When using a laptop, you can’t separate the monitor and keyboard which leaves you with your head and neck bent down and your arms and shoulders raised up.  If you must use a laptop:  recline on your bed or on the couch with your back, neck and head supported with pillows; your legs straight and supported; and your laptop on your thighs.

4.  Monitor – Place it directly in front of you an arm’s length away and make sure the top of the monitor is level with your eyes.  If it’s not, use books to prop it up.

5.  Telephone – Use speakerphone if you can, or invest in a headset.  You should always avoid cradling your phone between your ear and your shoulder.

The above tips will help you take care of the environment around you, but there are other things you can do to make your home working experience more ergonomic.  Stay tuned for Part 2…

Student Learning Improves with Ergonomics

Improving the performance of students is a constant and evolving goal.  A recent study, Designing learning environments to promote student learning: Ergonomics in all but name by Thomas J. Smith, School of Kinesiology, University of Minnesota, finds that the design of classrooms and buildings is a strong predictor of improved performance in K-12 students.  This follows the ergonomics principle of “fitting the task to the person, not the person to the task”.  Ergonomically, how can we make the environment better to encourage learning?

When we speak about design in the classroom, it can mean a number of different things:

  • Physical design – textbooks, audiovisual materials, desks, chairs, computers, and classrooms
  • Cognitive design – skills, tasks, knowledge, and curriculum
  • Social design – interaction between students and teachers

So how can ergonomics help students learn?  In looking through the literature, it appears that research still needs to be done.  Here are a few ideas based on ergonomic principles that I think warrant further investigation:

  1. Adjustable and/or different sizes of chairs – Students spend many hours in chairs that do not fit their bodies.  Ideally they would be provided with adjustable chairs and shown how to adjust them.  At the very least they should be provided with chairs of different sizes and education on how to sit properly.
  2. Less sitting – Providing standing workstations as an alternative to sitting should be provided in every classroom.  The standing workstations can be single for one person or for group activities.  Changes in posture would reduce discomfort, increase blood flow, and foster creativity.
  3. Adjustable keyboard trays and monitor risers – Now that technology has become a larger part of learning, adjustments must follow.  Keyboard trays need to lower to just above lap height and monitors need to be raised to eye level.
  4. Limits on laptops and tablets – Many schools are providing laptops and tablets to students.  Although helpful for learning, they force the student to conform to awkward postures that can result in injury.  They should be used minimally or with the option to dock so that an external keyboard with tray and monitor can be used.
  5. Textbooks – Textbooks are cumbersome, both physically and mentally.  There is still a place for textbooks in school as an alternative to screen time, but with less emphasis than in the past.
  6. Noise – The noise level in classrooms has been found to deter learning ability, both from students being unable to hear and noise affecting concentration.  Classrooms should be built with more sound absorption qualities in the ceiling tiles and flooring.  Corkboards and fabric on the walls also helps.  Baffles to cordon off part of the classroom should be available.
  7. Air quality – More emphasis should be focused on providing “green” materials in the classroom.  Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) are found in paints, cleaning supplies, furnishings, photocopiers and printers, and art supplies.  Care must be taken to reduce exposure.  HVAC systems must be inspected and cleaned regularly.  Other pollutants associated with moisture and vehicle exhaust must be eliminated.  Green walls would be wonderful additions to schools.
  8. Emerging technology – More research needs to be done in this area to investigate which technologies are helpful and which are harmful.  One area that has been investigated is delayed response feedback problems.  Delay in feedback from the computer has been shown to disrupt performance more than any other design feature (T.J. Smith, 1993; T.J. Smith, Henning, and Smith, 1994).
  9. Curriculum – Hands on learning has found to be more effective than standardized tests so this needs to be incorporated.  Every student learns in different ways so teachers need additional training on how to achieve this when presenting the curriculum.
  10. Social design – Investigation into the student-teacher relationship.  What social qualities promote learning? The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) indicates there are five key sets of social emotional learning/emotional intelligence skills; self-awareness, social awareness, self-management and organization, responsible decision making, relationship management.  These need to be taught in the classroom through the learning of rules, how to problem solve, how to show respect, how to be positive in the classroom, how to talk about feeling, and how to resolve conflict.  A socially positive environment will improve learning.

Taking into account these suggestions, the most important part of integrating ergonomic principles into schools is to determine what strategies work.  Those strategies should then be integrated into school policy at the community level, and ideally a national level.  Making learning easier through ergonomics is a task well worth taking on.

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.