By Garrett Knappe
Physical Therapist, Overlake Hospital Medical Center Outpatient Center
Injuries related to repetitive movements are among the most common injuries in the United States. It’s no surprise considering the amount of time most Americans spend in front of a computer for work and play every day. While sports safety is discussed at length, people rarely talk about the dangers of long hours spent at a computer.
Fortunately, many overuse injuries can be prevented with a little education about protecting joints and ligaments, proper ergonomics, postural imbalances and ongoing monitoring.
Common repetitive strain injuries include tendonitis of the elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, and chronic neck and low-back pain. Pain associated with tendonitis can be the result of repetitive strain in sports, manual labor and computer work. Injuries can be the result of the sustained grip in tennis or by using tools with handles that may be either too small or too big. Carpal tunnel syndrome is associated initially with numbness in the hand (not pain) due to pressure on the median nerve. This is due to inflammation of the flexor tendons in the underside of the wrist and often a result of repetitive fine motor skills, such as typing or needlework. Neck and back pain can be caused by any number of body positioning errors, from poor ergonomic setup, sitting or standing with rounded shoulders, or straining to reach frequently used items near your workspace.
Overuse injuries often begin with mild to moderate symptoms of stiffness, soreness and localized pain and will become progressively worse over time both in intensity and duration, and can spread to neighboring areas. Long-term symptoms include chronic pain, a reduction in available range of motion and weakness leading to the inability to grip objects necessary to complete tasks. Mild pain can often be treated at home using rest and ice, while avoiding or modifying the activity that causes the pain. If you have more severe or recurring pain, redness, swelling or fever, plan to see your doctor right away.
Since many of us spend a significant amount of time at a computer, either at home or at work, it’s important to review your computer work area and evaluate your body mechanics to ensure you’re working comfortably and efficiently. You may also want to consider a worksite assessment from an ergonomic specialist.
Some general recommendations include:
Monitor: Ensure the top of the screen is level with your eyes and about one arm’s length away.
Keyboard: Place it flat or slightly sloping away from you at a level slightly lower than your elbows.
Mouse: Keep it level and close to your keyboard.
Chair: Sit all the way back in your chair so that your low back is fully supported. Seat back should be slightly reclined about 10 to 20 degrees. Your feet should be flat on the floor, if you are unable to reach the floor, raise your feet with a stool.
Frequent Rest Breaks: Get up and stretch at least once per hour. Learn simple stretches and relaxation techniques to do throughout the day to break up your routine. Take a walk at lunch and get away from your computer.
Watch Your Posture: Slouching, along with rounding and/or elevating the shoulders, can cause neck and low-back strain and pain.
Treatment for repetitive motion disorders includes stopping or altering the activity that is causing the problem. To minimize strain, wrist splints and elbow braces may be used to help ensure proper positioning and support. These treatments are temporary, however, and must be combined with long-term adjustments to prevent a recurrence or worsening of the condition. A physical therapist can offer heat or cooling therapies, manual techniques and exercises geared toward improving strength, posture and range of motion.
Next time you think about a helmet or knee brace for your sports hobbies, remember that injuries aren’t always caused on the playing field and take the appropriate measures to prevent repetitive movement injuries.