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!

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.

Headaches, Computers, and Ergonomics

Headaches are never fun to have, so it’s important to try and find the root cause as soon as possible.  One thing that has been linked to headaches is poor ergonomics during screen time.  In a 2010 study done by Torbjorn Torsheim from the University of Bergen in Norway and a team of international researchers, it was found that screen based activities were consistently associated with recurrent headaches in adolescents.  They also suggest that the type of screen time (e.g. computer, TV, smartphone, tablet) is not as much a factor as is the duration and ergonomic aspects of the activity.

So if ergonomic aspects are a factor, workers who are having headaches need to make sure they are set up ergonomically when engaging in a screen-based activity.  Here is a list of things to check for:

1.      Head and neck rotation

Is your screen to the left or right of you?  If so, you need change the position of yourself or the screen so that you are directly in front of it.  That way you don’t have to use your neck muscles on a continuous basis keep your head turned to the screen.  Neck pain and fatigue has been linked to headaches.

2.      Head and neck flexion/extension

Is your screen too high or too low?  If so, you are placing extra strain on your neck muscles as they try to hold your head up or down for extended periods.  Change the height of your screen so that the top of your screen is level with your eyes.  You can accomplish this by raising or lowering your height-adjustable monitor, using a height adjustable monitor stand or a few books to raise your monitor, using an external keyboard with your laptop so that you can raise the screen of your laptop, or using a stand for your phone or tablet.  One thing that should be noted for bifocal, trifocal, or progressive lenses wearers is that the top of the screen should be 2-3 inches lower than your eyes so that you don’t have to tilt your head up to read the screen.

3.      Screen distance

It depends on the person, but a general rule of thumb for computer use is having the screen an arms’ length away from you.  Of course this is going to depend on your eyes and if you wear glasses or not.  What you want to do is not have the screen so close that you strain your eyes, but not have it too far away so that you’re leaning in to see the screen.  Leaning in towards your screen puts extra pressure on your neck and in turn can cause headaches.  If you wear bifocals, trifocals, or progressives, you need to find that sweet spot where vision is clear – this will require some experimenting with distance.

4.      Body positioning

Proper posture is always important so make sure you are sitting up straight or slightly reclined, back resting on the backrest of your chair, and elbows at 90 degrees of flexion when you are using your keyboard.  If your keyboard is too high, you will activate one of the neck muscles, the trapezius.  Continuous trapezius activation is associated with neck and upper shoulder pain and in turn headaches.  When using your laptop, recline on the couch or bed with pillows supporting your head all the way down your spine to your low back.  Positioning while using a tablet can be improved by using a stand while reclining on the couch or bed.  Smartphone use is cannot be readily adjusted, so smartphone users need to adhere to frequent rest breaks from their phones – aim for no longer than 15 minutes at a time.

5.      Rest breaks

It’s important to take standing breaks and breaks away from the screen.  Stand or walk for 1-2 minutes every hour to alleviate body cramping.  Look to a far distance every 30 minutes to give your eyes a break from focusing on the same spot for long periods of time.

6.      Lighting

There should not be too much light when using a screen.  Overhead lights and sun from the windows can cause glare which can cause eye discomfort which can cause headaches.  It’s also important not to work in a dark room with a screen.  The contrast between the dark room and light screen is tough on your eyes.  Also having too much or too little light emitting from your computer can be a problem.  Play with the brightness settings on your monitor to increase or decrease light from your screen.

These ergonomics tips will help you position your body and adjust your workstation for increased comfort and hopefully the reduction of headaches.  If your headaches are not alleviated by following the tips above, be sure to see your doctor to check into other causes.

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.

Screen time overload

How many peoples’ day goes something like this?  You get up in the morning, shower, have breakfast, and in-between you check your emails and the news using a computer, laptop, tablet or phone.  Then you go to work, during which time you are likely using your phone or tablet if you go by subway or train.  While you are at work, you spend a large amount of time on the computer.  Really when you add it up, you are on the computer 90% of your day, 95% if you eat lunch at your desk and use the computer then too.  Then you commute home with more screen time.  Eat dinner, and then likely some more screen time after dinner, and maybe even more screen time with your tablet in bed.  Then you go to bed and start it all again the next day.

Unfortunately this type of day brings the risk factor “overuse” into overdrive.  Your body cannot get a break from screen time and these parts of your body start to suffer:

  • Eyes – strain from looking at screens all day
  • Neck – from bending your head over your phone or tablet
  • Shoulders – from holding your phone or tablet and when using your laptop or computer
  • Forearms, fingers, and thumbs – from using your muscles to type, mouse, swipe, point, etc.
  • Wrists – from holding your phone or tablet

 Overuse isn’t the only risk factor.  These risk factors also come into play:

  • Force and contact stress– from gripping your phone or tablet
  • Repetitive motion and awkward postures– in the neck, forearms, wrists, fingers, and thumbs
  • Static postures – in the back, hips, and legs from sitting/being inactive too long

So what can you do?  The most important thing is to take frequent breaks from screen time.  Check your emails and the news in the morning, but limit your time to 10-15 minutes.  Don’t use your phone or tablet during your whole commute –listen to music or an audio book and give your hands a break.  Get up from your desk every hour at work – walk around the office, shake out your hands, rotate your wrists,  loosen up your neck (bring your ear to each shoulder and look over your shoulder on each side a few times).  Don’t each lunch at your desk or at the very least, don’t spend your whole lunch hour there – take a walk outside or socialize with co-workers.  Limit your screen time at home too.  Watch TV or movies so your arms are relaxed.  Or better yet, get away from all screens – take a walk, listen to music, play with your children or dog, do yoga, go for a bike ride, or just chill.  Take a break from screen time and your body will thank you.