Computer Injury: No Laughing Matter

By June Campbell

You might not think of computers as "dangerous" machinery, but those of us who use them for sustained periods are at risk of doing ourselves serious injury. That is, if your work life or your business operation depends upon your ability to use a computer, and you develop a condition that prevents you from doing so, that meets my criteria for a serious injury.

First, a disclaimer. I am not a physician nor do I play one on teevee. The following information is not a substitute for medical advice. If any of the symptoms apply to you, please consult your physician.

If you spend long hours at a computer, you have a risk of developing a condition known as a Cumulative Trauma Disorder (CTD). These injuries are caused by the cumulative effect of putting stress or strain on muscle, nerves and tendons. Computer-related CTDs are likely to occur in the wrists, hands, arms, shoulders, elbows or neck. Medical diagnoses include carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis. The most likely cause is prolonged keyboarding or mousing.

The condition may be present for a long time before symptoms such as pain, discomfort, tingling, numbness, aching, burning, cramping, stiffness, swelling, weakness, spasms or sensitivity occur. If ignored, the condition can progress to the point where you experience chronic pain, limited mobility, loss of sensation and muscular weakness. At this point, computer use may be impossible.

A similar type of injury involving soft tissue damage can result from prolonged pressure to skin and tissue -- for example, resting your arms or wrists on the edge of a disk while you are mousing.

To prevent CDTs, experts recommend the following:

1. Use the correct posture for your various computing related tasks, and ensure that your workstation is set up to facilitate correct posture. Even the best of intentions will be ineffective if your chair and workstation aren't aligned correctly for your use. Also, remember that if you are accustomed to computing from incorrect positions, the ergonomically correct methods will seem uncomfortable and strange at first. For detailed information, including diagrams and images, consult Cornell University's Ergonomic Web (

2. Take an exercise break every couple of hours. Stand up, move around, get a drink of water, stretch, swing your arms, and exercise those muscles that have become stiff from maintaining one position. Every 15 minutes or so, take a brief break. Stretch, look away from the monitor, do some mild exercises. If you have difficulty remembering to stop every 15 minutes, consider installing one of the software applications that will remind you to pause according to set intervals. The software will also recommend simple exercises for you do to at certain times. And no, it's not a waste of time. Researchers at Cornell lab discovered that workers who use this ergonomic software increase productivity and accuracy in ranges of 13% to 40%.

3. Be leery of devices marked "ergonomic." According to Cornell researchers, many of these devices can make the condition worse, not better. Avoid items that have not been tested in research conditions. Ergonomic keyboards, wrist rests, and braces/gloves have not proven to be substantially helpful.

4. Using the computer with a telephone receiver or cell phoned hooked between your ear and shoulder can lead to an unpleasant condition known as Carotid-Artery Dissection. Persons suffering from Carotid-Artery Dissection are usually unable to sit at a desk for a few months. Use earphones instead!

5. If you'll be using a mobile computer for a prolonged time, use an external keyboard, mouse and monitor. Mobiles are not designed for ergonomic computing.

And finally, eye strain, that well-known affliction of computer users, has not been linked to permanent eye damage. However, it can lead to discomfort, fatigue and loss of productivity. Minimize effects by sitting at least 24 inches away from the monitor. Every 15 minutes, look away, blink several times, and stare at an object 20 feet away. If symptoms are bothersome, consult your eyecare professional. You might learn that you need different eye glasses when using the computer.

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