You may already be feeling a tingle here and there, maybe in your neck or the joints of your fingers. But, you think it’s no big deal — the pain goes away, after all. The trouble is, what seems harmless now could eventually turn into a serious — and costly — condition.
Women can be especially susceptible to injury because keyboards, computer mice and even chairs are typically built for the slightly larger build of men, said Alan Hedge, professor of Ergonomics at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
Back injuries can cost $40,000 to treat. Wrist injuries can cost $13,000, including sick days and compensation claims, said James Mallon, executive vice president at Humantech Inc, a workplace ergonomics consulting firm in Ann Arbor, Michigan. All told, repetitive motion injuries cost American companies more than $2 billion per year, according to the Liberty Mutual Work Safety Index.
Companies with offices in the European Union have stringent regulations for creating ergonomic workspaces. Workers have better access to less-injury inducing workspaces and they have more choices for treatment when injury occurs, said Hedge.
But even people who have access to better quality workspaces may not end up with an ergonomic fit. Many employees and companies are still not entirely sure how to adjust personal workspaces and alter desk routines to avoid pain.
Over the last six months, a host of companies have announced or come out with new products to tackle repetitive motion issues at the office. Among them: Microsoft this month introduced the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop which features a domed keyboard and mouse. In March, US-based furniture maker Steelcase began selling the $979 Gesture chair, which helps those who lean in their chairs or strain their necks to send emails on their smartphone or table.
Short of spending a fortune on new products, how, exactly can you prevent or alleviate the most common work injuries, before they get worse?
Neck and shoulder pain
It pays to be vigilant.
Most neck and shoulder conditions develop so slowly that most people don’t realise they need to adjust their space until it’s too late, said Rob Danoff, an osteopathic family physician at Aria Health, a Philadelphia-based hospital system.
Keep your computer monitor at eye level so your neck stays in a neutral position. Standing during a phone conversation can help, said Mallon. Use a headset for speaking on the phone and place the phone on the opposite side of your mouse pad.
Avoid fads such as inflated ball chairs or kneeling chairs. “It fixes one issue but creates another, such as knee pain,” Mallon said.
Periodic stretches at your desk can help. Danoff said the best method is to stretch your arms up and away from your neck to get rid of tension.
Pay extra attention to how smaller tablets, phones or even laptops can create something some ergonomists are beginning to call “iPad neck”.
“Neck and shoulder [pain] is more prominent as we turn to smaller devices,” said Kevin Butler, senior ergonomist for Steelcase, an office furniture manufacturer.
Laptops and tablets are also causing more eye-related trauma, including blurred vision, headaches and dry eyes, said Hedge. Computer Vision Syndrome, which includes eye strain, headaches and blurred vision, is one of the most common complaints for those who spend days sitting behind a desk, he added.
To stay comfortable, make sure characters are easy to see at least 20 inches away from the screen — a little less than arms length — and are large enough to see without squinting.
And don’t forget to blink — or break to do so. Most workers blink less than half the normal rate of 15-times-per-minute when looking at a screen. Every 30 minutes, look away from your computer and focus on an object that doesn’t have a light source, Hedge suggested.
Better yet, said Mallon, get up every 20 minutes and walk 20 feet for 20 seconds.
If you use a laptop daily, ask for or buy an external keyboard and find a way — a platform, phone books, whatever works — to raise your monitor to eye level.
Lower back pain
Even if you’ve got a fancy chair with all the right ergonomic bells and whistles, sitting in it for hours per day can bring on lower back pain. One trick is to take phone calls standing up, or walk to get coffee or water every hour. Avoid inflated ball chairs, which should only be used for exercising because they lack support.
“Back pain is caused because you sit — it doesn’t matter what chair you have,” said Mallon whose clients include pharmaceutical giant Eli Lily, carmaker Toyota and tire manufacturer Goodyear.
No time to get up frequently? You can also do a quick stretch at your chair by putting both hands on your knees (without leaning back) and sliding arms towards the ankles, Danoff said.
Wrist and finger pain
Using extra force on the keyboard and typing with thumbs on smartphones have led to more complaints about hand and arm pain than ever before, said Hedge. Stress can make some people hit the keyboard harder than necessary when typing. Make sure you can comfortably keep your wrist straight across your keyboard, not arched over it. Avoid typing long emails on your smartphone with your thumbs. If you do need to use a tablet computer to type, hold it in one hand and type with the other, said Hedge.
Neck strain can also lead to arm pain.
“People are surprised when they have elbow and finger pain, but the root cause is in the neck,” said Butler.
Make sure you can comfortably rest your arms on the armrest of your chair. If you’re already experience pain, take heart: many issues stem from tendon inflammation and can be reversed by changing work habits. But certain issues like carpal tunnel, which occurs when a nerve becomes pressed at the wrist, can permanently damage nerve endings.
To release tension, try finger stretches: squeeze your hand into a fist and open it to stretch the fingers for five seconds at a time, said Danoff.
(This story was corrected 21 Aug 2013. Correction moved the paragraph on rising every twenty minutes to the section on eye strain, from the section on back pain.)
Women can be especially susceptible to injury.