Poor 'PC Posture' Can Cause Bodily Harm, Experts Warn

We're going to take a shot in the dark and assume that you are sitting in front of a computer monitor while you read this article.

Are your shoulders hunched? Your wrists arched back?

How about your neck: Is it craned forward? Is your back aligned with your chair back? Are your feet flat on the floor?

Well, here's some news that might get you to sit straight up in your chair: Along with the majority of the computer-facing population, you could be well on your way to developing a series of unsavory repetitive stress ailments such as carpal tunnel syndrome, postural syndrome, tendonitis and eye strain.

In the worst-case scenario, you could lose the ability to tell hot from cold, find yourself dropping things or develop a syndrome known as "foot drop," in which pressure on the sciatic nerve can cause a foot to drag while you walk.

eWEEK picked the brains of a slew of ergonomics and other posture professionals, who all voiced the sobering truth that human beings were not designed to fold themselves into computer workstations each day.

But they weren't all gloom and doom — they also suggested simple adjustments workers can make to save themselves from a lifetime of aching backs and sore necks.

Repetitive stress injuries don't develop in one week, or even two, but if you consider that people hold that slouched posture and poor alignment for more than eight hours a day, five times a week, over many years, it's not difficult to understand how people can get hurt.

"The most egregious ergonomic crimes I see include sitting without any back support for more than one hour at time; extended reaching in any direction, causing problems for the shoulders, neck and upper back area; awkward neck positioning and rotating the neck repeatedly; and people ... pitch[ing] forward off their chairs," Deborah Read, MOTR/L ergonomics consultant and president of ErgoFit Consulting in Seattle, told eWEEK.

"The No. 1 symptom people need to pay attention to is chronic aching. It's the most serious but also the most ignored. People brush it off and end up getting themselves to a point of no return. If you have had aching any place — lower back, upper back, between the shoulder blades, wrists or hands — for three days, you need to have it looked at," said Read.

Other common symptoms are aching or soreness in the tendon areas, as well as nerve symptoms such as numbness and tingling.

"The early signs of repetitive strains and injury are tightness and soreness in the upper back and shoulders. People tend not to do anything about it until they have symptoms down into their wrists and elbows," said Deidre Rogers, president of Ergovera Ergonomic Consulting in Santa Cruz, Calif.

Here are some things the experts recommend workers do to help avoid repetitive stress injuries.

Sit better

Desk work has long been associated with an easier lifestyle than manual labor, so much so that many do not realize that an act as idle as sitting can cause injuries.

"Put it this way — sitting upright has the highest compressive force on the lumbar disc [of] any ... position," said Read.

Furthermore, most people don't sit properly in their chairs, slouching and sliding down, and then rolling their shoulders forward.

"They're stretching their muscles the in the wrong ways and end up limiting their range of motion. Slouching collapses the diaphragm, limiting the amount of oxygen you are allowing into your body to circulate," said Wendy Young, certified ergonomist with Ergo Pro in Houston, which provides ergonomic consulting, training and products.

Young does not recommend that people rely on external lumbar support except in cases where obesity or physical problems leave the individual no other options.

"A lot of newer chairs were designed to support the lumbar region in the lower back. But, the body is strong enough to support itself," said Young.

Young instead suggests that people sit all the way back in their chair so that their sacrum touches the chair's back.

"When you do this, your pelvis and back are aligned properly and it allows you to move easily in the chair," said Young.

Rogers approaches seating positions differently, dismissing the popular notion that elbows and knees should rest at 90-degree angles.

"Think it terms of open angles. Instead of sitting with your legs at a 90-degree angle, try a 110-degree angle. Keep your elbow at 110-degree angle to your hand," said Rogers.

While everyone sits at a computer differently, men and women tend to fall into gender-specific posture traps.

"Men tend to be low writers. They like their chairs lower, and to sit back in them, and they need to learn to sit higher. Men strain their arms and wrists when they sit too low. Women are 'perchers' — they sit away from the backrests and at the edge of their seats. Women tend to slouch because they're so far away from their back support," said Rogers.

Use equipment correctly

When most people think of ergonomics, they think of wrist rests. Yet even these long pieces of padding that are nearly standard in office settings are widely misused.

"Wrist rest is a very unfortunate term because the general public thinks that it means they're supposed to rest their wrist on it. There's no protective fat under your wrist, and resting on this unprotected area could cause contact stress. I would be happier if they were called palm rests," said Read.

None of the specialists suggested that people throw their wrist rests out the window, however.

"Wrist rests were designed for resting between spells of typing, not during typing ... The killer combination is lazy typing and cold hands, suggestive of a smaller carpal tunnel. These two factors together almost guarantee that you will get a wrist or arm injury," said Rogers.

Each of the specialists referenced pianists when discussing the proper way to hold your hands and wrists when you type. Pianists use their fingers to hit keys, but keep their wrists raised and arms engaged, and hit the keys with their fingertips alone.

"The worst setup is the keyboard on the keyboard tray [and] the mouse up on the desk surface. It leads to reaching injuries," said Rogers.

Adjust your monitor

Most people have their monitor height set too high, or worse, lack the ability to lower it. Read suggested that people sit squarely in front of their computer screens with their feet flat to make adjustments.

"Your horizontal line of sight should hit the first one to two inches of the screen itself. When you need to look lower, you should use your eyeballs and not your neck."

Those that wear bifocals should keep their monitors even lower, so that they are always looking at them through the bottom of their eyeglasses, "without dropping their heads," said Read.

Use specialty equipment where available

"Injuries tend to start with your upper back and neck," explained Young, "and one of the worst things you can do is cradle the phone to your neck with your shoulder."

Young said that there was little excuse for workers not to use a headset these days, considering that one can be purchased inexpensively at Radio Shack or office-supply stores.

Rogers recommends that people who do even a little data entry or read from documents while on the computer buy an inexpensive document holder.

"Remember that your eyes lead your posture, and if the objects you are looking at are out of the way, your posture will strain. Put the document holder on the side of your eye dominance."

While trading in one keyboard for another that fits the user better is not always an option, Rogers suggests that people who can, should.

"A lot of narrow-shouldered women get in trouble with the standard keyboard. A keyboard should be the same width as your shoulders," said Rogers.

Move around

"People go to the chiropractor and get massages and then go back to the same chair," said Young. "Unsurprisingly, their injuries return."

All of the experts emphasized the importance of moving around throughout the day, whether through simple stretches, programs that prompt people to take a break, or by refilling your water glass or standing to complete tasks when you can.

"One of the misnomers about repetitive strain injury is that the repetitive motion is at fault. The real evil is the static posture," said Rogers.

Rogers pointed out that although people have done repetitive work for hundreds of years without getting injured, the difference today is that we rarely move around when we work.

Read reminds people that not all "desk tasks" need to be done while sitting.

"Get your butt out of the chair as much as possible. You can talk on phone while standing; you can stand to read a document," said Read.

Young offered more specific tactics to ensure that people are getting enough blood flowing.

"People do not take enough breaks," said Young, who encourages her clients to drink a lot of water so, at the very least, they'll need to rise once an hour to make the trek to the restroom.

"Every 10 minutes or so, rest your hands for 10 to 12 seconds and give your wrists time to recover. People tend to stop breathing, or breathe shallowly from the chest when they are stressed. Put your pen down and let go of your mouth and practice deep diaphragm breathing," said Young.

Rogers shoots down the notion that all those breaks will affect work output.

"If you do shoulder rolls or simple stretches every 20-30 minutes and walk around for five minutes every hour, you keep your perspective fresh and your mind active. In the end, you'll be more productive."

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