To Your Health
September, 2009 (Vol. 03, Issue 09)
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Escaping the Ergonomic Danger Zone

The Right Position Makes All the Difference

By Dr. David Ryan

More than 90 percent of all office workers use a personal computer, but whether they use it correctly is debatable. By "correctly," I'm not referring to whether they know how to download files, format documents, troubleshoot error messages or prevent e-mail viruses from attacking. I'm talking about having your computer monitor, keyboard, chair and workspace organized in a way that promotes productive, pain-free work and discourages repetitive-stress and ergonomic-related injuries. In 1997, work-related musculoskeletal disorders had reached 275,000 cases annually.

In 2009, that number is expected to exceed 14 million. Musculoskeletal disorders related to computer use include neck pain, tension headaches, lower back pain, and carpal tunnel syndrome, just to name a few. The affect on the economy is devastating, accounting for an estimated $20 billion in direct costs and more than $100 billion in indirect costs every year.

Your Keyboard Height

Keyboard icon - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark When you are in a seated position and sitting up straight, the position of the keyboard should be at the height of your elbows or below. Most people will sit with a keyboard height approximately level with their abdomen. This forces the shoulders to remain in an elevated or shrugged position, which activates a large muscle in your back - the trapezius muscle - and can result in a great deal of pain if that position is held too long. The trapezius muscle extends from the back of your skull to an area just above your lower back and runs laterally from shoulder to shoulder. It is literally the cross that we all bear, particularly when it's stressed or injured.

An easy test: Have someone stand behind you as you are seated. Let them poke your neck and back muscles with their fingertips, and hold pressure in any area that is sensitive on your neck and across the top of your shoulders. While they are still applying pressure, raise your hands and reach out, simulating typing on a keyboard. You are likely to feel an immediate increase in pain at all the points their fingertips are pressing on. Now try the same test, but bend only at your elbows; don't reach your arms out or raise them. Chances are you are going to feel significantly less pain by keeping your arms down and bending only at the elbow.

Raising the height of your chair is the easy fix for this problem. Other situations may require a more aggressive approach, such as installation of a swing arm that allows for adjustable positioning of the keyboard. Keep in mind that the computer mouse should be at the same appropriate height of the keyboard.

Your Monitor Height

Monitor icon - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Another common problem is the height of your monitor. The top of your monitor should be at the level of your eyebrows or top of your head. Some individuals have to place their monitor on a stack of large books to maintain the appropriate height. If you are having trouble seeing your monitor and maintaining a forward position of your head, it is likely that you will end up suffering the consequences of poor postural position. Looking down or straining your head forward to see the monitor will likely aggravate your neck and back muscles.