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It’s a funny moment when you realise that the internet has changed your body. I was burning through another late night session of League of Legends last year when I noticed a dull pain in my right arm. The next morning, I was at a computer again for work and the dull pain had developed into full-on searing agony. I have been living with this pain, on and off like some hellish velcro girlfriend, for about six months.
There isn’t a lot of data available about computer injuries, or as the professionals now call them, “work-related upper limb disorders”. A recent UK Labour Force Survey suggests that every year, 2 850 of every million workers will report an injury related to keyboard work, repetitive movements or sitting in an awkward position. The incidence may be considerably higher for full-time office workers (and, one might think, especially those who keep up a hardcore gaming habit).
“As a species, we’re not made to sit still. If you take us back a hundred years, no one had computers; we picked fruit and we hunted… we were a moving species,” says Dr. Francie Buhrmann, a Cape Town-based physiotherapist at Physio Active. That is of course no longer true, and Buhrmann has seen desk jobs account for an ever-increasing number of her cases every year.
Tweets like “I got mad carpal tunnel, bro” are nothing new on the internet, but the public’s understanding of these disorders is limited. For starters, it can be very complicated to identify the exact root of a work-related injury. A pain in the wrist may be traced back to a problem with the neck. So simply stretching the bit that hurts (as I have been doing these last months) is often only a temporary relief.
Neglect is not really an option. Says Buhrmann: “People sometimes get so bad that they can’t work on a computer. So then you need a very understanding boss… and a holiday.”
So, if my right arm produces more hurt than a season of Jackass, why am I not giving up the internet altogether? You wouldn’t be far wrong to suggest I’m somewhat addicted to it. I also enjoy being gainfully employed, and it’s hard to avoid computers in the vast majority of well-paid jobs for nerds like me. But there’s more to it than that.
The internet, and by extension the computer, is responsible for some of the most important experiences I’ve had in meatspace, a.k.a. The Real World. I can count five new friends I never would have made in 2012 had I not clicked on the right link at the right time (and yes, I include online dating in this statistic, but that’s a story for another post). The internet taught me how to make beer. The internet has found me some great restaurants.
Of course, that’s not what we always do on the internet. We also look at cats. We also fart around on Kongregate. Are those things worth running the risk of disability for? Probably not. But if it can broaden our horizons and lead to new experiences, and even better, shared experiences, the internet is worth that and a whole lot more.
The good news is that, with a few precautions and healthy habits, the risk of computer related injuries can be greatly mitigated. Start with these helpful tips from Dr. Buhrmann:
- Above all else, stay mobile. Giving your upper limbs & neck a good dose of movement every thirty minutes will break up your sedentary routine and help prevent injuries.
- Keep your chair high enough so that your knees are below or level with your hips. This helps straighten your lower back, which supports your neck, a seriously important piece of equipment.
- Laptops are especially dangerous to your posture, since they force you to look down and hunch over your keyboard. Try adding an external keyboard and monitor when using one at home.
- Keep your keyboard away from the edge of your desk and your monitor even more so. Increase font sizes if reading becomes a problem.
- Your desk should support your elbows without squashing them up into your shoulders. Adjust your chair accordingly.
- Standing desks are all the rage right now, but using one for eight hours a day comes with its own problems. If you can, get an adjustable desk, which will allow you to alternate between standing and sitting positions throughout the day, a great compromise between mobility and comfort.
- Another office fad, the physio ball, can be a great asset to your lower back muscles, but only if used properly. If you don’t keep your back straight while sitting (or let’s face it, bouncing) on one of these, it’s doing more harm than good.
- If you’re already experiencing pain or other problems in your upper limbs, the best bet is to go seek expert help sooner rather than later. I’ve booked my own appointment for Monday!