Looking After Yourself at Work
If you spend most of your work time seated at a desk, fingers tapping a keyboard and eyes glued to a screen all day, you have what is known as a sedentary job. You might think, while you are sipping a cup of tea or sending an email, that this comfy desk life exempts you from the work-related types of injuries you could get working in a danger-filled job as a tree surgeon, crab fisherman or professional ninja. Quite the opposite is true! Sedentary work has its risks. Whilst danger doesn’t lurk around every office corner, it can certainly lurk in your computer screen and even in your mouse. I am talking, of course, about the danger of repetitive strain injury.
Repetitive strain injury, or RSI, is defined as ‘injury to muscles and tendons caused by continuous repetitive use of particular muscles’. A great example of this is ‘mouse elbow’, the computer user’s equivalent of tennis or golfer’s elbow. When you use a mouse all day, every day, with few or no breaks, the tendons in your elbow can become stressed and inflamed. This can lead to chronic swelling and discomfort in the elbow region – thus the term ‘mouse elbow’. Other forms of computer-related RSI include carpel tunnel syndrome (a pinched nerve in the wrist, common in typists) and eye and neck strain caused by improper placement and use of computer monitors.
Although these sorts of injuries are commonplace and are now a regular cause of litigation, they are easily avoidable. Here are some tips to help you to avoid any injuries whilst working on your computer:
- Sit comfortably – Make sure you have a comfortable office chair. Sit close to your desk, and make sure your feet are flat on the floor with your joints (knees, hips and elbows) bent at around 90 degrees. Keep your back straight (adjust your chair to support your lower back if needed) and your arms parallel to the desk. Try to keep your shoulders relaxed.
- Adjust your screen – Keep your monitor approximately an arm’s length away from you. Position it directly in front of you and keep the top of the screen just below eye level to avoid straining your neck. Position the screen away from any glare in order to prevent you from squinting, and adjust the brightness and contrast to a comfortable level.
- Type safely – The ability to touch type reduces strain on the neck and eyes because you spend less effort than if you were looking down while typing. If you are working from a source document, keep it upright and next to the screen rather than flat and next to the keyboard. Not only will you type faster, but you also will take some strain off your neck.
- Take breaks – You should try to rest your eyes and limbs every 30 to 40 minutes. Take a walk, shake your hands and arms around, and stare at something in the distance. (But remember, this could be mistaken for some sort of office worker’s rain dance if you do these actions all at the same time!)
- Use supports – There are a wide variety of wrist supports and ergonomic keyboards and mice available for those who suffer from some form of RSI. If you think you are developing mouse elbow, try to use your mouse in the opposite hand. Some RSI sufferers use trackballs instead of mice.
If you are a laptop user, then you should be particularly strict when it comes to taking breaks. Laptop computers are smaller, which means the screen will always be closer to your eyes and your wrists will be at more of an angle on the keyboard. Get yourself a decent mouse, as touchpads are known to give you RSI long before a regular pointing device would.
Always be on the lookout for early signs of RSI. An injury in its early stages is usually quite easy to rectify simply by changing your work habits; if you let the injury continue to develop, however, you run the risk of permanent damage or a costly physiotherapy bill. Regular exercise and healthy eating can help limit the potential effects of a repetitive strain injury.
More information about RSI can be found on many specialist websites and Internet blogs. If you suspect you have some form of RSI, you shouldn’t hesitate to see a doctor.