Reducing Computer-Related Pain with Ergonomics

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A typical electric standing desk

Physical pain and injury from using computers is on the rise globally1. Working in a way that reduces this pain can be done by applying ergonomics, and in this article we will look at ways of doing this, so that we can reduce or even eliminate short and long-term computer-related pain, such as Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI).

 

The Wrong Machine for the Environment

If you take a machine that is built for a specific task in a specific environment, and you try to get it to do a different task in a different environment, at best it will do a poor job and at worst it will fail completely and get damaged or destroyed. Picture a pickup truck at the bottom of the ocean; broken, rusted, and covered in plankton.

Our human bodies are no different. Millions of years of evolution and natural selection shaped us into hunter-gatherers who excel at hunting, foraging, and surviving in the wild, not at sitting at a desk using a computer and a mouse 8 hours a day.

The unfortunate reality is that we are not designed to perform optimally or healthily in this new environment.
Fortunately, there are many ways we can tackle this problem, such as our blog post on bringing plants into your home and office2.
Another is adapting our computer and office setup to better suit our bodies.

 

Improving our work setup

Let’s look at a few ways we can improve our desk setup ar some and at work.

 

Experiment with what works best off for you

The most beneficial, ergonomic setup is different for each person; some general principles apply, but it is best to experiment and find what feels best for you. Experiment with different monitor heights and angles, different kinds of ergonomic mice and keyboards, and different kinds of chairs, to find what reduces pain and discomfort for you.

 

Use an external keyboard & stand with a laptop

If you use a laptop, buy a good external keyboard and a stand to place your laptop on.
The issue with laptops is that to change the position of the screen, you also have to change the position of the keyboard, and vice versa. It is usually not possible to place both of them in an optimal position.

An external keyboard can be placed exactly where you need it, in a position that causes the least amount of stress on your wrists and arms.

If you use a laptop on a stand. Generally, if you don’t use one, your laptop will be at a low position that requires you to bend your kneck downwards which can put stress on it. A good stand will let you elevate your screen to a suitable height that doesn’t strain your kneck. As a temporary fix, you can place your laptop on something to elevate it, such as a box or a stack of books.

The science:
Keyboard ergonomics by Cornell University3

Ideal typing position, from Cornell University
Ideal typing position, from Cornell University
Non-ideal typing position, from Cornell University
Non-ideal typing position, from Cornell University
Non-ideal typing tray position, from Cornell University
Non-ideal typing tray position, from Cornell University

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Experiment with ergonomic keyboards

Many different kinds of ergonomic keyboards exist. There isn’t a huge amount of research on whether or not they reduce pain and injury, though there is research to support pain and injury reduction benefits from using split keyboards, like the one shown below, as they reduce ulnar deviation; pointing of the wrists outwards. With a typical keyboard, you have to turn your elbows in towards your body and turn your writs at an angle; neither of these are good for your arms and wrist long-term.

 

Split ergonomic keyboard
Split ergonomic keyboard
Ulnar deviation
Ulnar deviation

 

 

 

 

(Photos from Keychatter.com4)

Experiment with what works best for you.

 

 

Use a vertical mouse

You can buy computer mice that place your hand at a vertical angle, as shown below. There have been multiple studies that show these kinds of mice, when used properly, can reduce wrist and hand pain, and reduce muscoskeletal problems and injuries.

A normal mouse places a small but consistent amount of stress on several parts of your wrist and arm, which can lead to damage and pain to your tendons over time.
This kind of mouse takes a little bit of getting used to, but it’s worth it as it will reduce your chances of wrist injury in the long term.

For more information on vertical mice and to learn how to use them properly, check out Benefits of a Vertical Mouse and How to Use one Properly5.

Vertical mouse photo from ergonomictrends.com
Vertical mouse photo from ergonomictrends.com

 

Get a standing desk

This is the most expensive option on the list but it’s my favourite and possibly the most beneficial.

Our normal way of sitting is bad for our health in the long-term; even the way we sit on the toilet is not good for our health6! The more we can stand, squat, or sit on the ground, the better.

A standing desk lets you spend a large portion of the day standing while you work, which helps to correct bad posture and reduce problems caused by sitting for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week – realistically it is more than this as we sit down to eat, drink, socialise, etc.

Standing desks can be fixed or adjustable, the latter allowing you to change its height to a) suit your body and b) to sit when you want to take a break from standing. The cheaper ones have a hand winch to lower and raise the height, and more expensive ones have an electric motor. A good electric standing desk usually starts at around $500.

If this isn’t an option for you (and even if it is), try to build a habit of getting up from your desk at least once every hour to stretch and move around.

A typical electric standing desk
A typical electric standing desk

 

Take regular breaks to stand, walk, and stretch

It is best to not stay sitting for longer than an hour at a time. There are smartwatch and smartphone apps that can alert you when you have been sitting for an hour. You can then do some simple stretches, go for a walk, and do some movement to keep your body healthy.

 

Bringing it all together

Here is a photo of my own desk setup:

Outdoor Office Standing Desk
Outdoor Office Standing Desk
  • The laptop is on an adjustable stand, letting me put it at the ideal height for me, keeping me from straining my neck.
  • The desk is a standing desk, which lets me put my keyboard and mouse at the perfect height for my wrists, as well as preventing me from sitting all day.
  • The keyboard and mouse are external/wireless and can go exactly where I need them to be to keep me from straining my wrists and arms
  • The mouse is vertical, keeping strain from my wrist
  • I usually take a break every hour or so to stretch or take a short walk around my neighborhood.
  • For bonus points, my desk is outdoors (I live in Thailand) and surrounded by plants and small trees, which has been shown to reduce stress amongst other physical benefits2.

I can attest to this setup improving my health, as I used to have minor pain in my back and wrist from working which have slowly cleared up. I’m lucky to have discovered these strategies early on, as I’m 24 and would be in a worse position if I kept working with poor ergonomics for a few years or decades. Regardless of your age, it’s never too late to improve your desk setup.

 

For individuals

Start off with taking a break every hour to stretch, as this requires no upfront investment.
External mice and keyboards, monitors, and stands are the next best ones to try, and if you want to go the full way, get a standing desk.
Experimentation is key!

 

For managers and HR

Sharing these tips with your staff and providing them with the equipment, or a budget to get their own, will improve many aspects of their work by reducing unneccessary pain, and will keep them healthier in the long run, resulting in less sick days and general health problems.

You can find examples of companies who have replaced all of their desks with motorized standing desks, so that those who want to sit can sit, and those who want to stand can stand.

 


 

1: Ergonomic Trends – Repetitive Strain Injury Information and Statistics
2: Horticultural Therapy – Improving Productivity and Wellbeing with Plants
3: Keyboard Ergonomics by Cornell University
4: Keychatter.com, A Primer and Roundup on Ergonomic Keyboards
5: Benefits of a Vertical Mouse and How to Use one Properly
6: How bathroom posture affects your health.

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