When I got my first computer back in the ’90s, the keyboard carried a warning that vaguely referred to some injury caused by its usage. Like millions of others, I Ignored it, and even forgot it for a good part of the next decade. But the keyboard had different plans for me. Every single job I got over the last 11 years of my career required long hours in front of the computer and I developed several wrist, neck and lower back issues due to long usage of computers.
While I am no doctor or trained medical person, I have been a damn good patient over the last five years. Here are a few thoughts I have on ergonomics and health in the computer era.
So what’s really wrong? We weren’t made for this!
Our bodies weren’t designed to sit on a office chair for 10 hours day, nor were our fingers made to smash plastic keyboards and tap a piece of glass with our thumbs all day (and night). We were made to walk, run, hunt, climb trees and focus on distances both near and far. The computer generation is far from adopting our natural body behaviour and that’s where we need to educate ourselves about ergonomics.
How bad is it? Am I damaging myself?
There are several stress points when you spend long hours on the computer or even a mobile phone. If you are reading this on your laptop, you might already notice that you have to slightly strain your neck downwards to focus on the screen. If you are typing something on a regular keyboard, chances are high that you have to bend your wrists to align properly with the keys. That’s a constant strain on your wrists. And if your chair can arch back or you aren’t really sitting upright, your spinal cord will hate it. By the way, if you really sit upright, you need to bend your neck a little more to look at the screen, so be careful! Our phones with screens as large as six inches don’t help either; your thumb is constantly under pressure on these large screens, which can result in repetitive strain injury.
Over time these small posture changes that you adopt can result in permanent damage. Experts use terms like carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive strain injury and I would love to share images of painful wrist surgeries that may be needed to even partially fix these problems. However for today, I will avoid using fear as a motivator. Let’s develop some healthy computing habits that can save you a lot of trouble and also increase your productivity.
Let’s fix it!
First things first: For long hours of work, there is a fundamental flaw in laptop design. For your laptop, get an external full-sized keyboard and proper mouse (something that fits into your palm comfortably, neither too big nor too small). Next, get a stand for your laptop and raise the upper part of the screen to your eye level. I use some cardboard boxes to make it easy.
Most office chairs do not work well for computer work. If you are going to spend all day on a chair, you better have a good one. And that doesn’t necessarily mean expensive. The most basic requirement is to have something that keeps your back straight. So a simple wooden chair that won’t let you arch back when sitting is very good!
Now, you could have all the right tools, but still use them wrongly. So the next step is to fix your posture. There are some simple rules for posture when using the computer:
a) Make sure your neck is straight and your chin is not leaning forward when you look at the screen.
b) Sit back and make sure your back is making full use of the chair’s backrest.
c) Your hands are best positioned at 90 degrees from your body (which will make your elbows stick closer to your body).
d) Have the mouse as close to the keyboard as possible and try not to use the wrist extensively when you operate the mouse; a better way is to use your arm to move the mouse around).
And you can’t just buy an expensive keyboard, place some boxes under your laptop, sit upright and expect everything to be smooth. It is highly recommended that you:
i) Take frequent breaks (once every 30 minutes)
ii) Flicker your eyelids often, and focus on a distant object every few minutes.
iii) If you are a vegetarian, keep your vitamin B12 and D3 levels in check (but consult a doctor).
iv) Learn some exercises for your eyes, neck, back and wrists. If you are seeing symptoms of wrist pain, I am sharing a video below that helped me a lot. Also read this fantastic post by Ankesh.
Video guide with exercises to fight Repetitive Strain Injury:
Disclaimer: The author is not a doctor. Please do not take this article as a replacement for expert medical advice. I have suffered myself and hence researched the topic and made changes over the years. If you are seeing any symptoms that needs medical attention, please see a qualified doctor.