Protecting Yourself from Injury While Using a Computer – Part 1: Aches and Pains

by Geoff Hartgeoff-Australia-cropped

Editor’s note: This series of articles is taken from Appendix II of Geoff’s book Effective Onscreen Editing, 3rd edition (http://www.geoff-hart.com/books/eoe/onscreen-book.htm), which was published in May 2016. Republished for Corrigo with the author’s permission.

The more you use your computer, the greater the risk you’ll encounter a repetitive-stress injury (RSI) such as carpal tunnel syndrome. That’s not because computers are inherently harder on your body than (say) jogging, but rather because the problems are subtler and develop over longer periods. (Unless you jog 8 hours per day.) RSI results from overuse of a body part without giving it time to recover, so it’s also called an overuse injury. Given how much time modern editors spend at the keyboard, overuse is surely a risk. The most common problems fall into three categories, each of which will be discussed in separate blog posts:

These articles provide the information you’ll need to understand these problems and take the necessary steps to protect yourself.

Get professional advice: The information in these articles was reviewed by medical and ergonomics professionals, but it is not a substitute for professional advice. If you’re experiencing a problem, or worried that one may be developing, seek medical advice now. Don’t wait for the problem to become serious. It’s easier and less painful to prevent an injury than it is to treat it.  

Aches and Pains

It’s unnatural to sit for hours at a time, and computer potatoes can expect their body to suffer. If you contort your body into awkward positions to compensate for a deficient workspace, this exacerbates the problem. The solution is simple, at least in theory: get up and move around or stretch periodically, exercise often enough to keep your body in good shape, and create an ergonomic workspace that minimizes the stress on your body.

The seat of the problem

Sitting for hours compresses your buttocks and upper thighs, thereby reducing blood flow to your legs. Improperly positioned backs and seats on chairs encourage a slumped posture that misaligns your spine and places additional stress on muscles, bones, and connective tissues (ligaments and tendons). If you’ll be spending hours in your chair each day, invest in a good one. A good chair has the following properties:

  • The cushions comfortably distribute and support your weight, thereby minimizing the pressure on any one part of your body.
  • The back rest adjusts to cradle and support your back, and the seat height adjusts: it should be low enough that your legs don’t dangle but high enough that your weight doesn’t rest solely on your buttocks.
  • If the chair has armrests, they must support your arms without creating painful pressure. Hard plastic is particularly dangerous.

Take frequent breaks: Take breaks, particularly when you’re facing a tight deadline, so your body’s self-repair mechanisms have time to work. Need help remembering? Use software. Any alarm program will do, but specialty software may work better. Try The Ergociser for Windows or Stretchware for both the Macintosh and Windows.

Don’t skip the “test drive”: the only way to tell whether a chair works for your body’s unique configuration is to sit in it long enough to understand what it feels like. Test the chair in the store by adjusting it to your body, then spend at least half an hour sitting, and at the end of that time, ask a friend to confirm that the chair is encouraging good posture while you’re sitting. Bring this book to pass the time!

Chair alternatives: A large exercise ball (“balance” ball) can make a good chair because it adapts to your shape and balancing strengthens your core muscles. They’re cheap, thus worth a try. Kneeling chairs are worth trying, but can create significant pressure on your knees. Standing desks became very popular when doctors realized that sitting all day is bad for you. Since they eliminate the chair for at least part of the day, they should also eliminate or mitigate chair-related problems. However, there’s little good evidence that they work and that they don’t cause other problems. Use them cautiously!

Some people find that a footrest elevates their feet enough to shift some weight to their lower legs and knees, thereby reducing pressure on their buttocks, hips, and thighs. When this works, it improves blood flow to the legs and reduces compression of the leg tissues. However, a too-high footrest can place too much weight on the buttocks and their underlying bones. If you buy one, ensure the height is adjustable or that you can adjust the chair’s seat height to compensate and pay close attention to whether it improves comfort—or just shifts the pain elsewhere.

Layout of your work area

An ideal desk–chair combination lets your body adopt a “natural” position, as close as possible to the position your body wants to assume if left to its own devices—but without slumping. While seated:

  • Your upper arms should hang straight down from your shoulders.
  • Your forearms should be horizontal, and angled slightly inwards (towards your center) in front of your body.
  • Your shoulders shouldn’t hunch.
  • Your neck and spine shouldn’t twist.
  • Only your buttocks, thigh muscles, and feet should experience significant pressure from your weight.
  • Your head should be vertical, not tilted to view the monitor.

The Cornell University Ergonomics Web provides useful information on workstation ergonomics you can use to design your own work area.

Work area problems can be subtle. During my first year of intensive onscreen editing, I began experiencing pain in my right shoulder. The problem was my mouse: the mouse typically lies to the right side of the keyboard, and the additional width of the numeric keypad was forcing my right arm to angle outwards, with my forearm extended away from the center of my body. That small additional stretch put too much stress on an old shoulder injury. Moving my mouse to the left side of my keyboard and learning to use it with my left hand eliminated the pain. By paying attention to my body, I recognized the pain before it became chronic, and solved the problem by eliminating the pain’s source.

Mouse alternatives

A standard computer mouse can be difficult or painful to use, particularly if it’s a cheap knockoff that came with a cheap computer. Fortunately, there are myriad alternatives, most of which you can test-drive at your local computer store. These include trackballs, trackpads, vertical mice, graphics tablets, and keyboards with integrated pointers.

If you find your mouse difficult to click and scroll, try replacing it with a different device. Alternatively, add a new device rather than discarding the old one. Alternating between devices—or using each device only for those tasks it does best or least painfully—is a good strategy, since it lets you stop a specific stress before it becomes harmful, although at the cost of creating different stresses. Graphics tablets are a particularly interesting alternative because holding the plastic stylus is very different from holding other types of pointing device.

Since “repetitive” is the problem at the root of RSI, reducing repetition is part of the solution. Perhaps the best solution is to reduce how much you use the mouse in the first place. Chapter 5 of Effective Onscreen Editing lists many keyboard shortcuts and other tricks for moving around a document from the keyboard, and Chapter 11 provides many tips on how to automate repetitive tasks so the computer does the hard work. Many sophisticated pointing devices come with a handful of buttons that can be programmed to perform various actions with a single click. Others, such as the X-keys keypads for both Windows and the Macintosh, take this to the extreme, with the biggest model offering 128 keys that you can individually program. Combine this with software such as MacroExpress for Windows and QuickKeys for the Macintosh and there’s no end to the keystrokes you could eliminate.

 

Geoff Hart is an STC Fellow with nearly 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, information designer, and French translator. He has published more than 400 articles, most available via his website (www.geoff-hart.com), as well as the book Effective Onscreen Editing. A popular speaker at the STC annual conference and STC chapter meetings, Geoff has given presentations and workshops on topics ranging from writing and editing to information design, cross-cultural communication, and workplace survival skills. He currently works as a freelance French translator and scientific editor, specializing in authors for whom English is a second language.