Warning: PCs Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
Unless one happens to drop on your head, personal computers can’t kill you. But they can hurt you pretty badly. In fact, computers can be a pain in the neck, the back, the wrists and the eyes.
Every year, nearly 2 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.
I’ve experienced my own fair share of computer-related maladies as a result of spending long hours evaluating hardware, software and Web sites, and from reading online publications, exchanging e-mail and participating in online discussions.
OSHA has 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, work habits are just as important.
Many people use ergonomic keyboards such as Microsoft’s Natural Keyboard, but those are 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 injuries at all, though ergonomic-keyboard manufacturers point to other studies that contradict that.
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 tendinitis 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 the 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 arm when sitting in front of the computer. I solved that malady by having a custom 3-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, believe the best thing you can do for your health around computers is to stop using them, though this is of course impractical for most. But you should 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, Quilter says. You can reduce the amount you need to use the mouse by substituting the keyboard shortcuts included with most programs or by using 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, er, 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 to stretch, keeping my stomach and back muscles strong through exercise. Also, a back massage at the end of the day can do the trick.
Eye trouble is 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 near-sightedness. 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 about 1.5 feet away from the monitor, minimize screen glare by positioning external lighting to the side and rest your eyes periodically.
If you would like to learn more, check out Typing Injury FAQ, at www.tifaq.com, and Harvard RSI Action, at www.rsi.deas.harvard.edu, for other tips.
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