The 21st-century living is fast and frantic. It is not until something breaks down until you’ll look at your lifestyle and start to analyze and dissect things that need to be improved or demand attention.
Computers, whether they be a desktop or laptop, are a ubiquitous product of most workplaces. Unfortunately, computer use has also been shown to be a major cause of back, neck and upper limb pain. Poor posture, inadequate workplace design and lack of regular breaks will all contribute to an increased risk of experiencing pain when using a computer.
As a Physical Therapist, clients attending with overuse injuries related to the use of computers was one of the most frequent presentations. The good news, however, is that there are some simple modifications and tips you can follow to drastically decrease the likelihood of you experiencing problems both now and in the future.
A key hallmark of an overuse injury is the way that they sneak up on you without knowing you knowing it. Overuse injuries, as the title implies, take time to develop, and a consequence of this is that you don’t know about the injury until enough damage has been done. i.e. you start to experience pain.
For example, carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition that causes pain, and in severe cases numbness and loss of power in the wrist and forearm. The condition is often caused by tightness of the forearm muscles which can be as a direct result of an incorrect setup of your keyboard and mouse.
Neck and shoulder pain can ensue if your computer set up is not ideal. Good posture whether you are sitting or standing is really important. A simple explanation that I commonly used with my clients was the “Bowling Ball” example. The human head weighs about the same weight as a medium size bowling ball (10-11 lbs).
If the bowling ball(head) sits nicely in line with the body’s midline, the muscles don’t need to work as hard to maintain “good posture”.
However, if you sit or stand with a head forward position, the neck muscles (some of which influence shoulder movement) have to work much harder.
And while sustaining a poor head position is possible, it is the cumulative effect that is most important to keep in mind. It is the repeated loading that will often cause the issue and contribute to the long-term dysfunction. Sitting for an hour or two with poor posture isn’t a concern. But sitting or standing with your head in a hunch forward position 6 hours/day, 5 days/week, 48 weeks/year is where things start to have an impact. Multiply this by “X” number of years that you’ve been working at your job and this will eventually lead to complications in most people.
The most important factor that I really stressed to all my clients is about the importance of taking self-control of your workplace and workstation setup. Unlike a “Bad Boss” or a “Toxic work colleague”, workplace overuse injuries follow you everywhere – whether that be to a new workplace or at home after hours!
If you work with poor posture for 10 years and then injure yourself performing “overhead press” at the gym, the common tendency is for you to blame the overhead press movement (or your Fitness Professional who developed your program) as the cause of the problem. However, the main culprit was the years of poor posture which led to isolated muscle weakness, joint stiffness, and poor movement patterns.
Assessment Is Important
The fact that overuse injuries will often develop without knowledge is one of the key reasons that a thorough Health & Fitness Assessment is so vital prior to commencing any type of exercise program.
Years of sitting at your desk, punching away at the keyboard, trying to meet the deadlines of work schedules will often mean that your muscles and joints have undergone subtle and gradual changes that you are not aware of.
Prolonged sitting will often result in tightness of the hamstrings and hip flexor muscles. A hunched forward posture will facilitate stiffness of the thoracic spine and tightness of the muscles around the neck such as the upper trapezius muscle. Tightness in your neck muscles can lead to headaches & neck pain.
Similarly, poor keyboard placement or typing technique can contribute to rounded shoulders which then can alter shoulder movement patterns and lead to common shoulder issues such as shoulder impingement syndrome.
The tightness of the forearm flexor and extensor muscles is also another common finding related to prolonged computer use.
All of the issues listed above are slow onset and have negligible signs of dysfunction until you have significant issues. This is why it is important to have a thorough assessment when you are beginning or changing your exercise program.
One Percent Change includes a specific range of motion tests for all of the common problem areas listed above. Strength and stability testing is also included so you and your Health & Fitness Professional are not guessing about what you need to address any underlying issues you didn’t know about. Importantly, this information can also be used to assist in preventing any future problems as well.
Keeping fit is only part of the solution
Maintaining a healthy level of fitness is only part of the solution in preventing problems with computer use. You can be extremely fit and have excellent strength and range of motion but still, experience pain and dysfunction when using a computer.
Similarly, don’t be misled by fancy marketing slogans such as ergonomic chair and ergonomic keyboard. It is possible (and quite easy) to use well-designed equipment poorly and therefore not gain any significant benefit from their use.
The good news, however, is that you can do some simple checks at your workstation and adopt some easy habits to significantly decrease the likelihood of problems when working at your computer. The other added bonus is that your performance and productivity are also highly likely to improve!!
Here are 5 key tips on how to prevent injuries, overcome pain & improve productivity when using your computer.
Make your workstation and chair correctly suit your body. I often used a car analogy with my clients. Imagine getting into someone else’s car. The first thing that you would do is correctly adjust the seat and the mirrors to make sure it suits your body. Employ the same approach at your workplace, especially if your office has “hot desks” where numerous people use the same workstation.
Limit continuous computer use & take a break every 30 minutes. Get up and walk around the office. Perform some specific exercises prescribed by your Health & Fitness Professional.
Learn to touch type so you don’t have to bend your neck forward repetitively to find the right keys. Alternate between using your left and right hand for tasks such as mouse use and holding your phone. Note: Performing tasks with your non-dominant hand is great for keeping your brain “active”. It can be challenging though, especially when using the mouse for precision type tasks.
Maintain or improve your general fitness. Keep yourself strong, flexible and able to cope with the everyday stress of work or study. Speak to your Health & Fitness Professional about getting a full body assessment to make sure you have identified any problem areas and individual concerns.
If you feel an ache or discomfort in any part of your body, check your posture, take a break, and if pain continues, discuss further with your Health & Fitness Professional.
Download this Infographic to share with your co-workers, friends, family & clients.
Cameron Luff is an innovative & successful Australian Physical Therapist with over 20 years of experience. Consulting in the National Academy for Tennis Australia for over 12 years, he worked with both Junior & Senior tennis players from around the world.