Unless one happens to drop on your head while you’re
walking on the sidewalk, personal computers can’t kill you.
But they can hurt you pretty badly.
According to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration
(OSHA), nearly 2 million people suffer work-related musculoskeletal
disorders every year. This includes repetitive strain injuries
caused by computer use. In fact I’ve experienced my own fair
share of computer-related maladies caused by spending long hours
evaluating hardware, software, and Web sites; reading online
publications; exchanging e-mail; and participating in online
OSHA may have flip-flopped recently on whether employers are
responsible for the ergonomic health of PC-using employees who work
in home offices—first ruling they were, then backing off. But
the fact remains that if you spend any amount of time with a PC,
regardless of where you work (or play), it behooves you to give some
thought to how you do so.
“You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where
you can’t get yourself dressed, feed yourself, or hug your
children,” says Deborah Quilter, author of The Repetitive
Strain Injury Recovery Book.
RX? A Good Setup + Smart Work Habits
Many people use ergonomic keyboards such as Microsoft’s
Natural Keyboard, but they’re no panacea. A study a few years
ago by CTDNews, a publication about cumulative trauma
disorders, concluded that ergonomic keyboards don’t decrease
the risk of wrist and other injuries at all. Meanwhile ergonomic
keyboard manufacturers point to other studies that contradict this.
Still, more important than what keyboard you use is how you use
The cardinal rule is: Keep your wrists straight. For
years, I’ve used a keyboard wrist support to prevent my wrists
from bending upward when typing. Even so, four years ago, I
developed the beginnings of tendonitis in my left wrist from mousing
around too much.
I saw an orthopedic hand specialist, and I tested about a dozen
ergonomic mice, trackballs, and keyboard-trackball combinations. But
what eventually solved this problem was simply putting three
paperback books in front of a regular mouse, again to prevent upward
wrist bending, and doing wrist exercises every time I went to the
About a year later, I developed a painful case of thoracic outlet
syndrome in my right shoulder, which was caused by holding my left
arm higher than my right at the computer. I solved this by having a
custom three-inch-high keyboard wrist support built at a local
lumber-supply shop (it helps keep my right and left shoulders in
balance) and by paying closer attention to my posture.
Some experts, including the author Quilter, feel that the best
thing you can do for your health around computers is to stop using
them, though this, of course, is impractical for most people. At the
least, take frequent breaks and heed Grandma’s advice: Posture counts. Sit up straight with shoulders and head back,
feet flat on the floor or a footrest, and forearms parallel to the
Mice cause the most injuries, says Quilter. You can reduce
mousing by using the keyboard shortcuts included with most programs
or a macro program such as the free TypeItIn, at
http://www.wavget.com/typeitin.html, or the commercial QuicKeys, at
http://www.quickeys.com. Speech recognition software, though
improving, still hasn’t progressed to the point where it can
efficiently eliminate mousing and typing for most users.
Sitting Too Long?
While sitting, you need to protect your assets too. Ergonomic
chairs that are adjustable in multiple ways help prevent back
problems. But I still regularly bruise the discs in my lower back
from sitting for extended periods.
What works best for me in preventing this is remembering to take
breaks and stretch, keeping my stomach and back muscles strong
through exercise, and having my back massaged at the end of the
Care for the Eyes
Eyes are another common sore point when computing. There has
never been any conclusive evidence that radiation from computer
monitors leads to health problems. But staring at a computer screen
can cause eyestrain and, because it’s a type of close work,
can worsen nearsightedness. My own glasses have grown considerably
thicker since I bought my first PC nearly 15 years ago.
Experts say your most eye-friendly moves are to stay a foot and a
half away from the monitor, minimize screen glare by positioning
external lighting to the side, and periodically give yourself
Computers are great… when they’re not a pain in the neck,
the back, the wrists, or the eyes. Check out Typing Injury FAQ, at
http://www.tifaq.com, and Harvard RSI Action, at
http://www.rsi.deas.harvard.edu, for more tips.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the
book “Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.”
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or <A