For the majority of our day, many of us may find ourselves seated in front of a computer, whether for work, communication, or leisure. Too much time sitting at a screen can create a stress on the neck, shoulder, upper and lower back, elbows and wrists in the form of a repetitive strain injury. Repetitive strain injuries include damage to the tendons, muscles and nerves and other soft tissues from repeated physical movements over time.
There are a number of factors that contribute to the onset of a repetitive strain injury, including:
- Posture: Posture is the most critical component. Slouching at a desk or keyboard puts your spine and limbs in positions that contribute to increased strain and tension, as well as increasing the risk of eye strain.
- Office Set-up: A poorly designed workstation, or one that does not fit you well, can contribute to the onset of repetitive strain injury.
- Work Habits: Sitting for extended periods of time without changing positions is hard on your whole body and can contribute to the development of a repetitive strain injuries. Other activities, such as pounding the keyboard, using your wrists to move the mouse, or gripping the mouse too tightly, increases the demands on the hand and wrist and can trigger or aggravate symptoms.
Early warning signs of a repetitive strain injury can include weakness of your grip, numbness, and discomfort or pain in the arms, hands, wrists or shoulders. Early diagnosis and treatment are vital to ensure recovery from symptoms.
To decrease your risk you can follow the SMART principle guideline:
STRETCH - Incorporate regular stretching into your work routine. Once every hour try to stretch three or four muscle groups including the hands, shoulders, neck and trunk. Set your screen or phone timer to remind you to take micro-breaks as needed to momentarily change your position throughout the day.
MOVE - Get up from your work station for a short stretch or walk to promote blood flow to fatigued muscles every hour. It could be as simple as a walk around the office or getting off the elevator one floor early and taking the stairs. Move out of the pattern that the work is creating by stretching into the opposite motion.
ADD IT UP - Keep track of activity and build up to 30 minutes of stretching and exercise daily. Vary your tasks (keyboarding, filing, telephone, reading documents etc).
REDUCE STRAIN - Make sure you are sitting correctly with your back supported:
- Adjust your chair, as above, to support your back and minimize
- awkward postures that can lead to muscle tension, fatigue, and soreness. Avoid slouching.
- Sit with your buttocks right back in the chair and your feet flat on the floor, or on a footrest. Your knees should be bent at a 90 degree angle, at the same level or slightly above your hips. Keep your shoulders relaxed; arms close to your body or resting comfortably on the armrests, which should be positioned close to your sides; elbows bent at approximately 90 degrees; forearms parallel to the floor; and wrists straight, which may involve adjusting the angle of the keyboard.
- Keep your eyes level within range of the top third of the screen. Don’t squint to see the screen- check for glare or enlarge the font.
- Keep your work, keyboard, and mouse centred in front of the monitor and close to you, to avoid arching your neck or twisting your body
- Use a good quality mouse that requires minimal pressure to click, and be sure to position it on the same level and as close to the keyboard as possible. Keep your wrists straight and move the mouse with the whole arm’s movements.
- Use ergonomic computer accessories, such as document holders to encourage neutral neck postures, and headsets to avoid awkward neck postures (often seen as holding the phone in the crook of the neck) while using with the computer and telephone. A wrist pad on the keyboard allows you to rest your wrists on the pad and reduces stress on the wrist.
- If you’re working on a computer all day, you may want to limit your computer time at home. Choose activities for leisure and recreation that will not continue to stress the same muscles and tendons
TALK TO A PHYSIOTHERAPIST - Repetitive strain injuries can be prevented, but if symptoms do occur, early intervention is the best form of treatment. If you are experiencing regular or increasing discomfort while sitting at your computer, take early corrective action. A physiotherapist will assess you and develop an appropriate treatment plan, including information about correct posture and positioning at your workstation. They will also work towards an earlier return to your daily lifestyle as well as provide guidance on how to prevent recurrence of injury.