Safe Computer Use Tips

As we use computers for longer hours every day, we may notice increasing aches and pains in some parts of our bodies. These musculoskeletal problems can happen in anyone who uses a computer for long hours: computer programmers, engineers, data entry workers, telephone operators, customer service workers, and even graduate students. The problems can range from minor muscle aches that last less than a few hours to persistent tendon problems that can last for years. The more severe problems can lead people to leave a job they like or stop doing sports activities they enjoy, like tennis or bicycle riding. So we should do what we can to prevent the minor aches of work from progressing to disabling conditions.

The most common body areas to watch for are the hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders and neck. The problems may vary from aches to pain, burning, numbness or tingling. These symptoms may be felt during typing or mouse use or at other times when no work is being done, including during the night when the symptoms might wake you up. If you experience these symptoms, or other persistent or recurring pain that you think may be related to using a computer, you should see a qualified physician or talk to your company's health and safety staff. The earlier a problem is properly diagnoses and treated, the less chance there is that it will progress to a disabling condition.

Now, having said that, you should know that most often these problems are not serious and will go away with a little attention to the way you work. First of all , the more hours you work, the greater your risk. In my patients I frequently hear that their problem started after they worked on a project with a tight deadline. For example, they worked for 10 to 12 hours a day for two weeks, and the ache that started in the elbow just never goes away.

Point 1. When working on the computer for long hours, pay attention to tension, discomfort or pain you feel and take immediate action to relieve it.

Point 2. Make sure you stand up and walk away from your computer on a regular basis. Just walk around for a few minutes, stretch, and relax. This should be done at least every hour. For my patients I recommend that they use a timer and get away from their computer every 20 to 30 minutes.

The greatest risk for these problems occurs when people use computers intensely for long hours and work in poor postures. Ergonomics is the study of understanding the limitations of the human body in order to design productive and comfortable workplaces, tools and work tasks. We study what postures are comfortable for computer work and what are not.

Figuring out how to properly set up your workstation, chair, monitor, keyboard and mouse can be a complicated task because when you adjust one thing, like the height of the chair, it can effect something else, like your wrist angle. The goal should be to adjust everything so that your body is in a comfortable posture that you would not mind being in for hours. You would not drive a car without adjusting the seat and mirror. Likewise, you should not drive the computer without adjusting it to your body. Here is an overview of how to adjust your workstation

Point 3. Adjust you chair so your feet and back are firmly supported by the floor and seat back. You should lean back in your chair a little. Arm rests can be a nuisance; they can press on the elbow or prevent you from pulling your chair forward.

Point 4. Position the monitor so the top is about at the level of your eyes and it is straight in front of you. It should be about an arm length away. If it is difficult to see the small characters check the glare, monitor resolution, or your eyes. You may need glasses (bifocals can be a problem). You should not have to lean forward to see your work. If you are frequently reading from books or papers when using the computer, use a sturdy document holder set next to the monitor.

Point 5. The keyboard should usually be at a low height, near the height of your elbows and the mouse or trackball should be right next to the keyboard. They can be higher if you have a padded surface to rest your forearms on. I am not a big fan of wrist rests; the wrist is a sensitive part of the body and it should not be constantly resting on something. Having to continuously reach for the keyboard or mouse may lead to shoulder pain. If you have to reach for the keyboard or mouse (for example with a high desk surface), rest your arms in the middle area of the forearms. Generally the keyboard should be flat so that the wrists are relatively straight.

Point 6. Try a different keyboard, mice and trackball -- there are many alternative designs on the market and it is up to you to find the one that works best for you. Some people find using the mouse uncomfortable. They can try using the mouse with their other hand or try switching to a trackball. People with hand and wrist pain may want to try the Microsoft Natural Elite keyboard; it appears to reduce hand pain.

Finally, the stresses of work can make aches and pains worse. The stresses of deadlines has already been mentioned. Ideally, you should try to set up your work so you can control the pace and flow of your work, so that you can take a break when you need to and not feel like you have to work through your coffee break or lunch breaks. As mentioned, get away from the computer for a few minutes regularly. Sometimes a coworker or the supervisor may get on your nerves. Try to constructively resolve these conflicts; do not let them fester.

As one of my professors said once, "The job you do should be something you look forward to doing every day, something that you would rather do than anything else in the World". Not all of us are fortunate enough to have a job like that. But we can take steps to make our work better and safer.

It's Your Body
Long hours on the computer can be rewarding, even fun, but they can also lead to aches and pains in your neck, shoulders, arms and hands. If you ignore these aches and continue working with improper work habits you may develop painful and disabling injuries.

You may have heard of some of these musculoskeletal problems: tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other health problems referred to as repetitive strain injuries (RSI) or cumulative trauma disorders.

Why some people develop these problems and others do not may be due to things like our age, physical conditioning, medical conditions (e.g., pregnancy, diabetes), hobbies (e.g., musical instrument use, weight lifting), and our ability to relax and get along with co-workers and supervisors.

But they also can be brought on by long uninterrupted hours at the computer, especially under stressful work conditions, using improper work habits and improper postures. Although setting up your computer may seem intuitive and as simple as pulling up a chair and reaching for the mouse, it takes deliberate effort to use your computer properly.

The purpose of this guide is to help you set up your computer and develop good work habits so that you can be productive and comfortable when using the computer.

If You Have Pain
If you experience recurrent, persistent or worsening discomfort, especially if the discomfort includes pain, numbness or weakness, promptly consult a qualified physician.

The earlier a problem is correctly diagnosed and treated, the easier it is to take care of and the less chance there is that it will progress to a disabling condition.