Lately, using my computer has been a pain in the neck. Literally.
I started using a new laptop late last fall, the same brand and size as the one I had used before. Not too long afterwards, I started to suffer frequent headaches. My doctor and physical therapist told me what I suspected – computer usage was affecting my health. While the screen was about the same size, the higher resolution led to smaller fonts, which caused me to lower my head while leaning towards the screen. My neck and head let me know they were not pleased. Our gadgets can lead to health complaints in a variety of ways. What are some things you can do to feel good while computing?
Rest (and test) your eyes. AllAboutVision.com cites studies that claim between 50-90 percent of computer workers suffer from eyestrain. The results? Physical fatigue, more errors and eye twitching. (Not only in the office – video gamers and students have their share of problems, too.)
There’s even a name for the range of problems, according to medical site WebMD – computer vision syndrome, or CVS (tinyurl.com/MATI-pain6), a repetitive stress injury similar to carpal tunnel syndrome. All About Vision includes suggestions for proper lighting and reducing office and screen glare in “10 steps for relief” (tinyurl.com/MATI-pain7). Adjusting display brightness to the surroundings and cooler temperature, text size and contrast (favoring black print on a white background) are adjustments you can make in Control Panel (PC) or Systems Preference (Mac).
Because eyes blink five times less than normal while staring at a screen, blinking more often and using lubricating eye drops can help. Ergonomic furniture and copy stands may also be needed. Exercise your eyes by alternating your focus. Authors Dr. Gary Heiting and Dr. Larry K. Wan suggest the “20-20-20 rule” many physicians recommend. Look away from the screen at least every 20 minutes and gaze at a distant object (at least 20 feet away) for at least 20 seconds. Take frequent breaks.
Their first suggestion, though, is to have routine, comprehensive eye exams, because vision changes as you age. Make sure the doctor knows how much time you spend computing.
Aging gracefully. Speaking of aging, there are steps you can take to go with the flow over time. Jane Vincent with the Center for Accessible Technology (tinyurl.com/MATI-pain1) echoes several of the eye tips – text size, screen contrast, lighting and black-on-white reading.
In addition, Vincent notes mousing speed and accuracy decrease in users over 40, while our pupils take in less light – generally reducing 90 percent between ages 20 and 80.
One solution is learning keyboard shortcuts. For instance, pressing the CTRL key while either using a scroll wheel or the plus and minus keys will raise and reduce text on a PC or the command and plus or minus keys on Macs. Other PC shortcuts can be found at tinyurl.com/MATI-pain4, Mac at tinyurl.com/MATI-pain5.
Typists with less-sensitive fingers may not be able to feel the raised spots on the F and J keys; fabric (puffy) paint available from craft stores can fix this. Changing equipment may also be in order. Larger keyboards, with white type on black keys, a trackball mouse and oversized mouse pad (or clean surface) and anchoring keyboards for those with reduced hand strength may all prove beneficial.
Microsoft offers a range of other articles and videos for age-related helps at tinyurl.com/MATI-pain3.
Proper posture. Standing and sitting properly means avoiding aches and pains now, and avoiding motion problems, possibly even surgery, later.
The WebMD site has a variety of advice to minimize neck and back pain at tinyurl.com/MATI-pain9: Sit straight in your chair with lower back supported, neck straight, shoulders relaxed and feet flat on the floor. Try taking 3-5 minute breaks or change tasks every 20-40 minutes. Practice neck and relaxation exercises, such as alternately pushing on the sides, front and back of the head.
WebMD’s ergonomic tips (tinyurl.com/MATI-pain10) also note how laptops can contribute to workplace-related pain. Using a docking station, keep the keyboard at elbow height, reduce use of the keyboard touch pad and trackball and use of a two-strap carrying case are some possible solutions.
A Harvard study has found similar issues with tablet use, concluding that best practices include keeping your neck straight and upper body well supported, using a separate keyboard for long periods of use, and avoid using the tablet well below your field of vision (tinyurl.com/MATI-pain11).
Injury or disability. Surgery, accidents and living with disability may require other changes too specialized to deal with here. Hewlett-Packard has posted an Assistive Technology Decision tree PDF from disability protection provider Unum Provident that suggests needed adjustment based on user abilities (tinyurl.com/MATI-pain2).
Be aware of your environment, your furnishings and your posture and you can head off unnecessary aches and pains that can affect your productivity.
Ken Satterfield, a former media specialist, is advertising/marketing director for Word&Way.