Avoiding Computer-Related Strain Injuries
by Wendy Priesnitz

Q: As a self-employed graphic designer, I work at my computer for up to 12 hours a day. I've noticed occasional tingling sensations in the calves of my legs, and my wrists ache a lot. I guess this is the repetitive strain injury I've been reading so much about. What can I do before it gets any worse?

A: You're right to be wanting to make some changes quickly, before your discomfort turns into more serious, lost-time pain.

Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) is a general class of disorders resulting from strain to back, shoulders, arms, wrists, hands and fingers. It occurs gradually, over a period of time. It results from a combination of high rates of repetition, awkward posture or positioning of limbs, use of excessive force and lack of adequate rest or breaks. It can affect anyone who does repetitive work, including people who spend a lot of time at a computer.

In order to prevent carpal tunnel wrist problems or tendonitis in your elbow, avoid prolonged unnatural bending of your wrist in any direction. Adjust the height of your chair or use a keyboard tray and/or wrist rest so that when you are keyboarding, your forearm is parallel to the floor. Find a mouse or trackball that allows your wrist to remain straight.

There are a number of ergonomic keyboards on the market, with the left and right hand keys slightly angled away from each other, and a built-in wrist pad. This will prevent your wrists from being bent at unnatural angles, both horizontally and vertically.

Your back and leg related problems can be remedied by choosing an adjustable chair, which fits your body size and the major tasks you undertake. Your chair should adjust up and down, depending on desk height and the task in which you're engaged.

Choose a chair that allows you to sit in an upright position with your back straight, feet flat on the floor, thighs parallel to the floor and your head looking forward. Your lower back should be supported at all times. When you are engaged in long periods of computer intensive work, you may be more comfortable leaning slightly forward.  

Position your computer monitor approximately 18 to 20 inches away from you. To prevent shoulder and neck strain, make sure the height at which your monitor is situated allows you to look straight ahead. The top of the monitor should be level with your head. If you refer often to hard text, use a copy holder, which elevates your papers to the same height as your monitor.

No matter how well designed your home office is, don't forget to take breaks. Every 15 minutes or so, stand up and flex your muscles, breathe deeply and focus your eyes on something far away.

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