Personal Computing: PCs Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

Personal-Computing-Logo color web jan14By Reid Goldsborough

Unless one happens to drop on your head while you’re walking on the sidewalk, personal computers can’t kill you. But they can hurt you pretty badly.

Every year nearly two million people suffer work-related musculoskeletal disorders, including repetitive strain injury caused by computer use, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). From spending long hours evaluating hardware, software, and Web sites, reading online publications, exchanging e-mail, and participating in online discussions, I’ve experienced my own fair share of computer-related maladies.

OSHA may have flip-flopped recently on whether employers are responsible for the ergonomic health of PC-using employees who work in home offices, first ruling they were then backing off. But the fact remains that if you spend any amount of time with a PC, regardless of where you work (or play), it behooves you to give some thought to how you do so.

“You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you can’t get yourself dressed, feed yourself, or hug your children,” says Deborah Quilter, author of The Repetitive Strain Injury Recovery Book.

Good equipment helps, but according to the advice of experts and my own experience, your work habits are as important.

Many people use ergonomic keyboards such as Microsoft’s Natural Keyboard, but they’re no panacea. A study a few years ago by CTDNews, a publication about cumulative trauma disorders, concluded that ergonomic keyboards don’t decrease the risk of wrist and other injuries at all, though ergonomic keyboard manufacturers point to other studies that contradict this. More important than what keyboard you use is how you use it.

The cardinal rule is, keep your wrists straight. For years, I’ve used a keyboard wrist support to prevent my wrists from bending upward when typing. Even so, four years ago I developed the beginnings of tendonitis in my left wrist from mousing around too much.

I saw an orthopedic hand specialist, and I tested about a dozen ergonomic mice, trackballs, and keyboard-trackball combinations. But what eventually solved this problem was simply putting three paperback books in front of a regular mouse, again to prevent upward wrist bending, and doing wrist exercises every time I went to the gym.

About a year later, I developed a painful case of thoracic outlet syndrome in my right shoulder, which was caused by holding my left arm higher than my right at the computer. I solved this by having a custom three-inch-high keyboard wrist support built at a local lumber-supply shop, which helps keep my right and left shoulders in balance, and by paying closer attention to my posture.

Some experts, including Quilter, feel that the best thing you can do for your health around computers is to stop using them, though this of course is impractical for most people. At the least, take frequent breaks and heed grandma’s advice: Posture counts. Sit up straight with shoulders and head back, feet flat on the floor or a footrest, and forearms parallel to the floor.

Mice cause the most injuries, says Quilter. You can reduce mousing by using the keyboard shortcuts included with most programs or a macro program such as the free TypeItIn, at www.wavget.com/typeitin.html, or the commercial QuicKeys, at www.quickeys.com. Speech recognition software, though improving, still hasn’t progressed to the point where it can efficiently eliminate mousing and typing for most users.

While sitting, you need to protect your assets too. Ergonomic chairs that are adjustable in multiple ways help prevent back problems. But I still regularly bruise the discs in my lower back from sitting too long.

What works best for me in preventing this is remembering to take breaks and stretch, keeping my stomach and back muscles strong through exercise, and having my back massaged at the end of the day.

Eyes are another common sore point when computing. There has never been any conclusive evidence that radiation from computer monitors leads to health problems. But staring at a computer screen can cause eyestrain and, because it’s a type of close work, can worsen nearsightedness. My own glasses have grown considerably thicker since I bought my first PC nearly 15 years ago.

Experts say your most eye-friendly moves are to stay a foot and a half away from the monitor, minimize screen glare by positioning external lighting to the side, and periodically give it rest.

Computers are great, when they’re not a pain in the neck, the back, the wrists, the eyes.… Check out Typing Injury FAQ, at www.tifaq.com, and Harvard RSI Action, at www.rsi.deas.harvard.edu, for more tips.

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