Health: How To Create An Ergonomically Correct Work Space

Here are some easy things you can do to do to keep your computer work from becoming a pain in the neck (and shoulders, wrists and elbows).

All of us today are suffering some from the harmful effects of computer overuse. While many of these effects can be minimized, the only way to avoid them altogether is to avoid spending hours a day at our workstations. This isn't an option for most people, so here are a few things you can do to make your workday as pain-free as possible.

The ideal workstation has an adjustable height. Many people are still using fixed-height computer tables, which means they must adjust their chair to bring them to the right height for the computer. This can be a problem if you're tall or short; tall people find this brings their knees up, as if they're sitting on a kid's stool, and short people find their feet dangling in the air. Your feet should be flat on the floor for the best support, and your thighs should be parallel to the floor. Ninety-degree (right) angles are best for hips, knees and elbows. There is some evidence that a more reclined posture is beneficial, but a hunched-over posture is a back-killer. If you're forced to use a fixed-height table for your computer, there are some things you can do to correctly position yourself. If you're tall, raise the table on blocks to keep from having to sit too low. If you're short, you may need to put foot supporters under your chair.

Constantly tilting the head to look up at your computer monitor will result in neck pains and chiropractor bills. Some of the more expensive workstations now have a niche into which you can recess the monitor at an angle, so that you are looking down at it as if it were a book on a desk. This keeps your neck straight or tilted forward, a much more natural position than tilting it upward.

When your hands rest on your keyboard, your elbows should be at a ninety degree angle or larger. If your keyboard is too high, raising your hands and bending your wrists to compensate will lead to 'tennis elbow', which many are now calling 'computer elbow'. It is surprising, as long as the computer mouse has been around, that keyboard trays do nothing to correctly position them. A mouse in line with your keyboard means that you have to extend your arm to use it. A 'wrap-around' keyboard tray which would put the mouse on an arc with your keyboard, so that you could reach it by rotating your arm rather than extending it, would be ideal, but that isn't part of a standard workstation. You can create your own by fixing an extension onto the right of your keyboard tray (if you're right-handed). Try pressed board rather than plywood.

With the keyboard now including a numeric pad and a number of direction arrows, the alpha keys have shifted to the left of center. If your keyboard is centered on your tray, your center line is at the punctuation keys, with all the actual letters to your left, where you must swivel or strain to reach them. Reposition your keyboard so that the center of the letters is directly in front of your center for easier typing.

Alter your activity every 30-60 minutes. You don't have to take an 'official' break to stop working on your keyboard and work on something else-just save up the non-computer tasks you have and dole them out on an hourly basis. Do you need another employee's input on the document you're preparing? Do you need a look at the engineering plans? Work at your computer tasks for forty-five minutes and then stand up and see if your co-worker is available, or swivel to your phone (resting your eyes from the monitor glare) to return a few phone calls. Rotate your shoulders, and do some neck-stretches while you're at it. You can program your computer clock to gently chime once an hour if you're prone to getting lost in your task.

Since some computer-related muscle stress is unavoidable, consider treating yourself to a weekly massage. If expense is an issue, perhaps your local community center has a class on couples' massage you could attend with your partner. The best treatment for muscle strain (other than a complete cessation of the activities that cause it, which is impossible for most employed people) is acupuncture. The acupuncture needles (which as so thin that very few people can even feel them) can cause the worst muscle knots to melt. Acupuncture can be expensive, but is covered by some health insurance policies; check with your personnel office to see if your policy is one of them. Other treatments you may find effective include heat, ice-packs, or muscle rubs that include arnica, an herb that stimulates circulation and healing.

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