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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Tips to help you sit less

office workers

Much has been in the media lately about the dangers of sitting… or more accurately, the danger of not being active.  Computers and other screen devices have brought our lives to a grinding halt, literally.  We sit, slouch, and lie more than we stand and walk; as a result, our health and mortality are paying the price.

Sedentary time – Biswas et al – January 2015

Research out of Toronto, Canada has discovered that sedentary behavior has been associated with:

  • A 15 to 20 % higher risk of death from any cause;
  • A 15 to 20 % higher risk of heart disease, death from heart disease, cancer, death from cancer;
  • As much as a 90 per cent increased risk of developing diabetes;

… and for the worst news, this is all after adjusting for regular exercise.

But all is not lost!  There are many opportunities for increasing your activity during the day, all of which are quite easy to do.  Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Move around often when sitting – change position, straighten and bend your joints, fidget, anything that is movement;
  • Walk every hour and stand every 20 minutes;
  • Use a sit-stand desk – sit for 45 minutes and stand for 15 every hour;
  • Stand and/or walk during meetings, phone calls, while reading documents, or any time you can;
  • Take the stairs whenever you can during your day;
  • Walk or bike to work;
  • Park your car in the furthest parking spot;
  • Use your lunch hour to do something fun – take a kickboxing or Zumba class, get a walking group going, window shop without stopping;
  • Do a stretch for every body part each hour of your day;
  • Get up every second commercial when watching TV;
  • Walk your dog every night – or borrow somebody else’s!

If you have any other ideas for movement, please share below.  Everyone can benefit from a more active life.

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!

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!

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.