Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Sit Up Straight: Your Life May Dependent On It.

Today’s world is a mad mad one. Information technologies, as well as other technologies, have blessed us tremendously. As we discussed in last week’s post, there have been unfortunate consequences to these advances. In addition to what we talked about last week, there are very real physical consequences to the reliance we have come to have on computers for our everyday tasks.File:Computer Workstation Variables.jpg

For an increasing number of us, computers are at the centre of work and play. So we spend 8 - 14 hours tapping away at our keyboards peering at the screens in front of us, scrunched in our office chairs. We then go home and do pretty much the same thing.

Without realising it, we are putting ourselves at risk of long-term damage to our joints, our bones, our muscles and our eyes. Welcome to the increasingly painful world of repetitive stress injuries (RSI). Without going into all the technical medical terms and descriptions, the group of disorders known as RSI occurs because we spend too much time doing things over and over again in unnatural positions. The disorders also result from using wrongly designed tools and furniture for our daily tasks. The picture to the right taken from Wikipedia, shows the recommended physical position everyone should sit in when working with computers.

Most of us don’t use our computers this way. We slouch forward rather than sitting straight, we bend our wrists the wrong way and rest them on the table while typing. Our monitors are at the wrong height for us. We stretch our legs out rather than place them flat on the floor. Our elbows are not at 90 degree angles. We hold the mouse the wrong way. Our chairs are set at the wrong height. We stare at the screen for long hours without a break.

However, most importantly, even if we sit the right way, and use our keyboard and mouse right, doing it for too long without taking breaks will eventually have the same impact. Aside from how we sit and work, the tools we work with are also important. We use computer equipment and office furniture that are not designed to keep us healthy and comfortable. The technical term is ergonomics and this refers to the “scientific discipline of designing according to the human needs”.

The effect of all this may not be felt in the short term beyond the occasional stiffness. However, in the long term the impact can be devastating. The effects may include tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, muscular weakness, nerve damage, and can get as bad as paralysis. You may well require surgery. Harvard has a good resource on this subject and there is a huge amount of material on the internet about this.

I can’t emphasis enough how important it is that we be aware of this. Picture yourself a middle-aged man or woman in your fifties. You can’t stand straight, you can’t hold things in your hands for long. your arms are constantly trembling. And you are in unrelenting pain.

That is the risk.

What can you do? Take frequent breaks from your computer. Stand up. Walk around. Set up your workstation to fit the standards in the picture about. Specialists have come up with little exercises you can take at your desks to exercise those key joints and muscles. These exercises are quick, easy to do and are very effective. This is a computer problem and there are actually computer aids to help with this. My company uses a software called WorkPace by a company called Wellnomics that forces you to take short frequent breaks. It enforces these breaks by making making your mouse and keyboard unresponsive for periods from a few seconds to a few minutes depending on the settings you have selected. It can track your current usage and tailor the breaks to fit your needs. It also gives you little exercises that you can take during the breaks and you can track how well you follow the breaks and exercises.

WorkPace isn’t free software, but there are free solutions that do similar things. Download.com is a good place to start looking. Get one of them and install it on your computer. It is worth the expense and the effort to replace your work furniture with ergonomically appropriate furniture. It’s definitely worth having an “industrial engagement” with your employers to get safe and ergonomic chairs, tables, keyboards and mice. If you’re the employer, then you owe it to you employees to provide them with such furniture and equipment. Lastly, if you are already in pain or experiencing any of the symptoms discussed here or in other resources, please go and see your doctor.

I started out talking about the madness we face in today’s world, well unless we take very good care, one of the casualties could well be our health.

My back hurts.


Back Pain: RSI Prevention Exercises


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