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.

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!

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!

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…

Office stretch series – Trapezius stretch

This is a great stretch for computer users.  The trapezius muscle is a diamond-shaped muscle that originates in your neck, goes across to both your shoulders, and ends in the middle of your back.  It gets an unwanted workout when the keyboard is too high and elbows cannot be at 90 degrees of flexion.  It must work constantly to raise the arms and shoulders to the level of the keyboard.  This stretch targets the neck and top of shoulders for instant relief from cramping.

Trapezius stretch

(stretches your neck for relief of neck and upper shoulder discomfort)

 

  • Sit facing forward in the chair
  • Slowly rotate your head to the left and look down towards your left hip (place your left hand on your head behind the right ear to increase the stretch)
  • You should feel a slight pulling in the right side of your neck and upper shoulder – do not stretch to the point of pain
  • Hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds
  • Repeat on the other side

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.