You might want to stand before reading this column. Depending on where you are, you have probably been sitting in the same position for too long, which could be compromising the blood supply to your muscles and ultimately causing tissue damage.
These types of injuries are called "cumulative trauma", which basically means too many years of doing things in ways that are not in your body's best interest. As a result, you may not notice any damage building up until it's too late. This holds true for most jobs and activities, in particular those involving the computer.
This brings me to sit/stand computer workstations – work surfaces that adjust to sitting and standing positions. They seem to be a relatively hot topic; however, no single piece of ergonomic equipment is right for everyone. In fact, an improperly utilized sit/stand workstation can be just as hazardous as a conventional one. The idea behind the sit/stand workstation is based upon the need to change positions frequently in order to avoid musculoskeletal problems.
Working while standing provides an excellent alternative to sitting, but it is far more important to examine your work practices before looking to equipment for the cause of your physical discomfort. The key to minimizing the potential for cumulative trauma disorder is changing positions at least every 15 to 20 minutes. This can be as simple as standing during telephone calls, to retrieve a paper from the printer, or even to reach for that cup of coffee. Don't wait until you begin experiencing discomfort. Pain is telling you that something is now going on!
Cumulative trauma disorder is easier to prevent than it is to treat. Below are five basic risk factors:
- Doing anything in the same position for longer than 15 to 20 minutes
- Repetitive actions
- Awkward postures (torso, wrist, arms, hands, shoulders, etc.)
- Forceful exertions (striking computer keys too hard)
- Pressure on body parts from things like armrests on chairs, keyboard supports, etc.
Obesity and lack of regular exercise have also been identified as significant factors contributing to workplace injuries.
Some basic work practices to consider are:
- Frequent changes in position.
- Avoid overreaching (vertically or horizontally). Stand to reach for items on your desk, which will also provide a change in position.
- When working at the computer, drop your hands to your sides when you are not using the keyboard and mouse to improve circulation to your hands and fingers.
- Keep the back of your hands flat and your wrists straight when using the mouse or keyboard.
- The top of the monitor should be at eye level. This allows a gentle downward gaze and minimizes the stress on your neck and shoulders.
- Float your wrists above the keyboard.
- If you are on the telephone for extended periods of time, consider purchasing a headset.
If you have been experiencing problems for longer than two or three weeks, consult your health care provider as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the more difficult it is to treat.
To find the optimal solution for your workstation, find a medically trained professional—like an occupational or physical therapist. Workplace injury prevention is only as effective as you make it.
Mr. Kaufman is an Industrial Occupational Therapist for Contra Costa Health Services. He also runs a private consulting business in Contra Costa County.
Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at email@example.com. For more health information, go to www.cchealth.org.