Most of us suffer from it — and most of us don’t take it seriously. Yet back pain costs a fortune in terms of lost productivity, and a lot of the time, it’s our own fault. I’ve suffered from back, neck and shoulder pain for over twenty years now, and I’m only too aware of how my tech-related habits are a major contributor. My chiropractor loves me; my bank balance not so much.
The costs really are significant. Back pain sets the UK back around GBP5-billion (US$2.27-billion) a year. Even in an emerging market economy like South Africa it costs R2-billion (US$22.7-million) a year. So it has a substantial impact — and that’s not to mention neck and shoulder pain and associated tension headaches.
For many of us, these are the chief culprits:
Too much sitting
You sit in a car to get to work, then sit all day at a computer in the office, sit in a car again and then – wait for it – sit for hours at home watching TV or playing on your Xbox. Large scale studies suggest that sitting for prolonged periods shortens your life. People who sit for 11 hours a day or more have a 40% greater chance of dying in the next three years than people who sit for less than four hours a day. I’m not entirely sure what that means in practice, but one thing’s for sure: your chair and your couch should probably be cordoned off with yellow tape and labeled with one of those Danger / Gevaar / Ingozi signs.
Repetitive strain injuries
Repetitive strain injury or RSI is potentially debilitating. It’s also par for the course with a lot of the tech we use, from PCs to phones and game consoles. Typing, scrolling, clicking a mouse — all of these can lead to pain radiating up your arm into your neck and shoulders, and even carpal tunnel syndrome. (Not to be confused with carpal tunnel vision syndrome, something a lot of politicians suffer from.)
Yes, your mother was right: you really should sit up straight. Slouching in a chair or a comfortable couch — furniture designers have a lot to answer for — compresses the spine and causes the muscles supporting it to deactivate, leading to chronic pain.
The laptop bag. (Or the handbag, or the manbag.)
Take a bag and pile in the laptop and/or iPad, the cellphone as well as the keys, the Moleskine, hand cream, hairbrush, lipbalm, pens, breath mints and Rescue Remedy and you’ve got something that approaches the weight of a 10kg bag of dog food, if a 2010 UK survey is to be believed.
All that uneven weight throws your shoulders, neck and back out of alignment, causing tension and pain.
So, what can you do about it? Besides the usual standby treatments of pain relief gel and anti-inflammatories, here are seven ways to prevent all that tech from being a pain in the neck:
1. Keep moving
This is the simplest way to prevent pain: don’t sit or stand in one place for too long. Don’t send an email or pick up the phone if you can walk over to talk to someone. Get up to make coffee. Take a break from your desk over lunch. Management by walking around was a big 1980s trend; it needs to make a comeback. (For nifty ways to combine back pain prevention with office politics, click here).
2. Substitute your office chair
The standing desk is the hottest thing in office furniture since somebody put wheels on a chair. At South African digital agency Quirk’s Johannesburg office, some staff members have shifted to standing desks, and standing meetings are growing in popularity. Mashable has even been experimenting with treadmill desks, something I’m keen to try. You can even build your own standing desk.
Others swear by exercise balls. Recently I’ve experimented with using one of these instead of a chair. While I soon discovered my back muscles need a lot of work, I loved the fact that you can bounce and work your glutes while sending mails. (There are other office uses for exercise balls too).
3. Get your posture right
This means feet flat on the floor, wrist position neutral, upper arms vertical (not stretched forward or back), monitor at eye level and between 50cm to 100 cm from your eyes. When it comes to using a phone or an iPad, don’t slouch, and don’t hold your neck at a strange angle for extended periods.
Neck stretches and shoulder shrugs are quick and easy ways to relieve tension and pain, especially when you don’t have the luxury of leaving your desk.
6. Software can help
Whether it’s voice-activated software when RSI prevents you from typing, posture reminder programmes like Postureminder, or apps like Break Reminder software can tell you to sit up straight when your mother can’t be there.
7. Don’t buy a soft, comfy couch
We spend hours on the couch watching DVDs, scrolling through Twitter, or playing video games. While it may feel comfortable on first encounter, a low, soft couch with a deep seat causes back pain by not providing enough support and causing us to slouch. This results in stretching of the spinal ligaments, muscle spasm and pain. Rather choose a couch that supports your back.
Let’s face it, we spend most of our lives using tech in one way or another, and this isn’t going to change. So it makes a lot of sense to change our bad habits now — before we end up at the chiropractor or the physio again, or worse.