Avoiding Computer Injuries

Carol Milano

If you can't afford to be out of commission, or to lose a valued employee, for weeks or months -- not to mention possible legal liabilities -- follow these tips to help avoid computer-generated injuries.

Is Your Office a Pain?
Here's Help to Prevent Computer Injuries

By Carol Milano

(c) 2000-2001 ChamberBiz

Working at a computer all day can be as stressful on a person's neck, spine, wrists and shoulders as heavy lifting or construction work, resulting in some truly painful injuries," reports Dr. James Mertz, president of the American Chiropractic Association (ACA).More than 75 million Americans, including many entrepreneurs,are at their computers each day. The Electronic Age has given us speed, convenience and our own epidemic of work-related damage. If you can't afford to be out of commission -- or to lose a valued employee -- for weeks or months, follow these simple tips to avoid computer-generated injuries.

Where to Place Your Computer

Center your computer screen in the middle of your face,17 to 18 inches away, advises Dr. Scott Bautch, president of ACA's Occupational Health Council. "Everyone knows they shouldn't slouch at a computer, but everyone's doing it," he finds, when surveying employees at all sorts of companies.Old typewriters required more force and motion to operate. People typed for hours without the discomfort experienced today. To avoid that, "Make the best computer station you can for yourself. Adjust other things around whatever is nonadjustable. If your desk doesn't move, raise yourself with pillows," suggests the owner of Allied Health Bautch Chiropractic in Wausau, Wis. While seated at your workstation, can you fit three fingers behind your knees? If not,that excess pressure can inhibit your circulation, possibly leading to varicose veins or clotting in your lower legs,eventually.

Do you have a laptop? You probably use it on a surface not meant for office tasks. "Working at a laptop for the same length of time as a standard computer is asking for problems;they're not designed for long-term use!" declares Dr. Bautch.A screen attached to a keyboard causes terrible posture when your head is down. Use your laptop only briefly.

What Kind of Chair to Use

Lumbar support cushions or sleek ergonomic chairs may help a little, but they will not take all the pressure off your spine. "You cannot eliminate gravity or pressure on your disks," warns Dr. Vijay Vad, assistant professor of Rehabilitative Medicine, Hospital for Special Surgery/Cornell University Medical Center in New York. Put a small stool under your feet to help relieve pressure on your spinal disks, he advises.

Sit as straight as you can, with your ear, shoulder and hip in a line. Keep your elbows against your sides as you type, and your hand either straight on the keyboard or bent a bit backwards, as if resting at your side, says Dr. Bautch.Your knees should be at a 90 to 120 degree angle. If you're tall, your feet will be flat on the floor; otherwise, use a slanted footrest to maintain the needed angle.

Who's at risk?

"People who sit for prolonged periods at their offices, maximizing pressure on their disks, which get nourished by infusion from foods when you're standing. You minimize nourishment of your disks when sitting," explains Dr. Vad. For over five years, his hospital's seen younger and younger victims of low back pain. Patients used to be in their mid-30s; now they suffer a decade sooner.How do you know you have a problem? Pain or lingering discomfort at prolonged sitting, if it lasts more than two weeks, is a signal that something else is going on. Pain in the buttocks is another symptom, reports Dr. Vad.Headache, eyestrain and any stiffness or discomfort,"from your elbows down to your fingers, is certainly a warning sign. Don't wait until you're in great discomfort,"warns Dr. Bautch, author of "A Physician's Guide For Conservative Care of Repetitive Motion Injuries."

How Often to Get Up

Stretch before, during and after computer work, to give your body a chance to recover. Get up and change posture every 20 minutes, urges Dr. Bautch. Bending forward in a fixed position compounds the problem of sitting too long at a computer. Develop a simple strength and flexibility maintenance program for your hips, hamstrings and abdomen, including five to seven minutes of back exercises. To his patients, Dr. Vad recommends "No More Back Pain" by Dr. Leon Root, available in book or video.

Fuel to Keep You Productive

While you're up, get a small healthy snack, advises Dr.Ann Maugeri, director, New Science Chiropractic Center in Brooklyn, NY. She suggests brazil nuts, almonds, fruit, rice cakes or baby carrots. "During prolonged intellectual work, your brain requires nutrients and extra calories to stay focused," she explains.Get some water, too. "All tissue recovers better from stress if you drink water," says Dr. Bautch.

Scope of the Problem

Though you may be pain-free, adapting preventive steps is worthwhile. Spinal stress, tendinitis and other injuries make both work and daily life painful for sufferers.Carpal tunnel syndrome alone affects about 230,000 people in this country and accounts for nearly half of all workplace illness. Two recent studies of insurance claims found the combined cost of all cumulative trauma disorders (including repetitive motion disorders and low back pain) exceeds $11.5 billion annually. The worst thing people do is sit at a computer for hours, develop symptoms of problems and ignore them, says Dr. Bautch. "You know you should do something. Taking good care of yourself speeds recovery from any trauma -- including sitting too long at a computer."

For a free brochure on improving your workstation and a list of ACA member doctors in your area,
call (800)986-4636.

Many of these articles appear on the publication's website, which are often password-protected or members-only. For your convenience, I've gathered them on my own website.