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Preventing Pain Caused by Long Periods of Computer Use, by Laraine Anne Barker

If you use a computer for much of your day you must take steps to prevent the crippling pain this can cause—pain often called OOS (occupational overuse syndrome) or RSI (repetitive strain injury). The first thing to consider is the correct (ergonomic) set-up of your computer desk and chair.

Both the chair seat and its back should be adjustable. The chair back should have good lumbar support and you should be able to adjust it to fit neatly into the small of your back while you’re sitting in the chair. The seat should have gas lift to make adjusting its height easy and should slope down at the front so that the backs of your thighs are not put under pressure. With your back against the chair back you should be able to sit up straight—not slumped either backwards or forwards—and your feet should rest firmly on the floor. If you feel the need for a footstool, your chair height is definitely too high.

With your fingers on the keyboard, your forearms should be level or sloping slightly down. Your wrists should be straight, not sloping upwards. If they slope up, the keyboard is too high. This is why you need a fully adjustable computer desk, i.e., the monitor and the keyboard should have their own platforms that can be raised or lowered separately as required. The top of the monitor should be about level with the top of your head, i.e., you should be looking straight into the screen, not with your head bowed.

You could build a desk specially to your measurements, but this doesn’t make allowance for computer upgrades (for instance, going from a desktop machine, where the monitor can sit on top of the computer, to a tower model, or switching from a 15" to, say, a 21" monitor). The monitor distance from your seat, BTW, should be about arms length.

Set up your computer in a position that doesn’t allow reflections in the monitor from windows or overhead lights, or that at least minimises them. Reflections will create eyestrain and tend to make you tense because you can’t read what’s on the monitor properly. (I nearly always have to have the drapes in my office partly drawn for most of the day.)

Even with ergonomic furniture it’s still possible to suffer neck, shoulder, arm, wrist and finger pain. By the time it reaches your wrists and hands, of course, you’re in a really bad way. However, there are some exercises you can do. Preferably do them to prevent pain. Unfortunately, most need demonstrating with photos or graphics, but my favourite is easy to describe.

Stretch out on your bed with your shoulders positioned so your head hangs over the edge. Support your head with both hands and slowly lower it over the edge of the bed as far as you can. Take away your hands and rotate your head an inch or two to both left and right, trying to see as much of the floor as you can. Then gently lift your head with your hands until it is level with the rest of your body.

Do the exercise a few more times. Try doing it every morning as part of your dressing ritual, or every night before getting into bed. Certainly you should do it as soon as you notice the slightest pain.

This exercise works on the same principle as the best exercise for back pain (bending yourself backwards as far as you can). Backache, especially unexplainable backache, is usually caused by doing things that force you to bend forward for long periods. Slouching in your chair (particularly in a way that forces your body into a “banana” shape) is another cause of backache.

Armchairs and sofas should not need cushions. If they do they are badly designed. Cushions are difficult to arrange for proper lumbar support, so if the chair in which you sit to watch TV does not have good lumbar support, a special back roll for the purpose is probably your best bet. And don’t forget the seats in your car!

Two very good books (or rather booklets) on looking after your back and neck are Treat Your Own Back and Treat Your Own Neck by Robin McKenzie. We have owned copies of these since about 1986. The latter one is where I got the exercise described above.

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