Computers undoubtedly make our lives easier and save a lot of time. We use them to perform a number of tasks like shopping and paying bills or communicating with other people, but there is a price to pay. Headaches, low back and neck pain, muscle strain and sore eyes are ailments commonly associated with sitting in front of a computer screen for a long time.
Most of us have experienced these health issues to some extent, but people who are especially prone to suffering from them are those who use computers in their work on a daily basis. These include translators, accountants, office workers, and IT specialists. Fortunately, you are not doomed to pain and there are a few simple ways to avoid it.
Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS)
After working for long hours most computer users complain about watery and bloodshot eyes, conjunctival redness, burning and tingling, headache, drowsiness, apathy. Most also give symptoms of blurred vision and the feeling of dry eyes.
The reason behind this discomfort is the fact that working in front of a computer forces your eyes to continuously focus and align to the changing images on the screen. Your eyes need to accommodate to what they see in order for the brain to interpret the images correctly. The task is much more demanding for your eye muscles and requires greater effort than, for example, reading a newspaper. The eyes have to move in a way they are not naturally intended. To make matters worse, a light source facing a computer screen causes a significant glare, which may contribute to the feeling of eye fatigue. Older monitors may additionally cause a noticeable flicker of images, which is not only irritating, but may also cause eyestrain. Other harmful factors are excessive or poor lighting in the room, incorrect posture during work, and an inappropriately arranged workstation. If you are worried about CVS, implement these simple changes in your work environment and follow the advice.
How to prevent it?
1. Use proper lighting.
Minimalize the glare and reflection on the screen by moving the monitor away from a direct light source. The windows should be to the side of your monitor, and remember to avoid excessive overhead lighting. Instead, you should aim for a number of different sources of ambient light.
2. Rearrange your workstation
Your screen should be between 40 to 70 cm from your eyes. That is why CVS is more common among laptop users, as with laptops, the distance between the screen and our eyes is much smaller. In addition, the centre of the screen should be about 20 degrees below your eye level.
3. Remember to blink
A healthy person normally blinks about 18 times a minute, but it has been found that this number falls to as little as 4-5 times when we are working in front of a computer screen. Why is blinking so important? Its main job is to keep your eyes moist and dirt-free. An inadequate blink rate could lead to dryness and irritation. If you experience dry eyes, ask your doctor for artificial tears, and try to blink more often to rewet your eyes.
4. Upgrade your monitor display
Buy good quality large IPS display 19 inches or more. They have a sharper display, usually with an anti-reflective surface and produce less harmful glare. Another thing you can do is to adjust the brightness of your screen so that it matches that of your work environment. Also, change the contrast between the background and characters on the screen if it is not high enough. If you wear glasses, remember to get anti-reflective (AR) coating applied to your lenses.
5. Take breaks and exercise your eyes
A good way to give your eyes a rest is to look away from the screen every 20 minutes and gaze at a distant object for about 20 seconds. This would relax the focusing muscles in your eyes and reduce the feeling of tiredness. You should also take more short breaks and walk away from the computer. According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), workers who take up to four 5-minute breaks throughout the day, reduced the feeling of eyestrain and fatigue.
Computer Back and Neck Syndrome
If you spend long hours hunched towards a computer throughout the day, you are more likely to suffer from the so-called computer back syndrome. The term refers to posture and back problems, as well as a sharp pain in the upper and lower back and neck. This is caused by prolonged and excessive stress placed on the muscles, nerves and joints. Generally speaking, even if you keep a good posture, your spine is under much greater pressure when sitting than standing or lying down. To make matters worse, people with desk jobs may find it difficult to keep the perfect posture for 8 hours or more. They have a tendency to twist around in their seat, cross their legs, change the position of their feet. All this may increase the feeling of tension and back’s overload to an even greater extent.
How to Relief and Avoid the Pain?
1. Get a comfortable chair.
One of the most important things you can do to minimize the pain in the back or neck is to have an ergonomic chair that promotes good posture. A good chair should share the burden of supporting your body load with your back, so that your body does not have to do all the work. One of the most important features to look for in a chair is lumbar support, as this is where most back issues usually start. It supports the natural low back curve in your spine, thus minimalizing the strain and discomfort. Make sure the lumbar support is adjustable for height and depth. As far as the backrest is concerned, it should be between 30 – 50 cm (12 – 19 inches) wide, must support the natural curve of the spine and be adjustable. If the backrest is not part of the chair completely from the seat, you should be able to adjust it in height and angle. If it is not separate from the chair, it should be adjustable in the forward and back angles. An ergonomic chair should have enough width and depth so that the user can sit comfortably. This usually means there should be about 5 – 10 cm (2 – 4 inches) between the back of your knees and the seat.
Another thing to bear in mind when choosing an office chair is that it needs to have a height-adjustable seat. You should be able to sit back comfortably with both of your feet flat on the ground. Sitting in a chair that is too high or too short can further increase the back and neck problems you are experiencing. Remember, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. The last thing to take into account is the material on your office chair seat. Opt for cloth fabric that breathes rather than hard surfaces. Leather may not be the best option, especially in offices with no air conditioning, as it does not breathe and may feel hot over time.
2. Customize your office space.
An office chair is not the only thing that needs to be adjustable to your height and preferences. Placing your keyboard and mouse is also important. You should not have to bend your forearms more than 20 degrees to reach them (or 45 degrees if you prefer standing instead of sitting). It is also not good if you need to extend your arms forward in order to type. Remember to keep all the items you need in your work (e.g. a phone, books, a document holder, etc.) within your reach. Thus, you will avoid stretching out to get them when necessary.
Take short breaks to stretch out the muscles, stand and walk. It will help you to keep the muscles and joints loose and promote blood flow. Even a short walk to the water cooler or bathroom can help you avoid the pain and relax.
Sitting up straight is good for you, but try to avoid staying in one position all day long. You should be able to regularly change your posture to eliminate tension in the muscles. Tile the backrest of the chair in order to sit reclined or declined when necessary. If you have an adjustable desk, you may find standing in front of the screen a better option for you. However, you should not overdo it, as it may make your legs feel sore at the end of the day.
It would seem that the main cause of pain around the elbow is playing tennis. This is not always true. Often the pain is caused by working for long hours in an improper position and when the height of the tabletop is not adjusted properly. It causes the feeling of overload in the forearm tendons, especially if you perform monotonous work such as prolonged typing. With tennis elbow, the muscles and tendons in the elbow get damaged, because they are kept in the same position for a long period of time. This may be caused by the keyboard and mouse not being placed at a proper height.
Is there anything you can do?
First of all, remember to assume the correct position when working. Sit up straight without bending or extending your forearms forward too much. Consider buying a special vertical mouse and an ergonomic keyboard with a V-shaped design with which you will be able to type at a slight angle with your wrists in a more natural position. The vertical mouse is also much more ergonomic than a regular one and can help you avoid further muscle strain. A good way to prevent the condition is to do a little stretching before overusing the elbow muscles. Remember to take breaks to allow your arm to dangle at your side. This will help relax the muscles and joints and release the tension.
Other issues Related to a Sedentary Lifestyle
Headaches and fatigue
Frequent and recurrent headaches are a common complaint among people with a sedentary lifestyle, including heavy computer users. Usually, there are several reasons behind it: working under a lot of stress trying to meet the deadline, long working hours, poor work environment, too dim or too bright lighting. If you happen to suffer from frequent headaches, there are a couple of things you can do to curb headache triggers or to avoid the headache altogether.
As it was mentioned before, a common headache trigger is your workstation, if it is not arranged properly. You may be more prone to headaches if you work in a very bright environment and already suffer from eyestrain. As with the case of computer vision syndrome, a good way to get rid of the headaches is to take frequent breaks and spend time doing activities that do not require you to focus on a screen. You might also want to switch the overhead light off when working at a computer and adjust the contrast settings on the monitor.
Another factor that might trigger headaches is improper posture. If you constantly lean towards the monitor, you are not only more likely to develop chronic pain in the back, but also get a headache. Do not sit in one position all day, but always keep your back and shoulders straight. Adjust the chair, desk and monitor to your preferences, and again: take breaks to stretch out your muscles and relax.
Another thing you need to take into account when trying to fight off headaches and fatigue is your diet. Limit your caffeine intake, because coffee acts as a diuretic and dehydrates you. Drink plenty of water instead. Working long hours and irregular meal times often come together. Unfortunately, if you skip meals and let yourself get hungry, you are more likely to get a headache at the end of the day. Remember to ventilate your office regularly and, if possible, go outside during your break or after work to make sure you get enough fresh air.
Do not forget about proper sleep hygiene. The relationship between sleep and headache is inseparable and has been known for years. If you deprive yourself of sleep, you are more likely to suffer from headaches and fatigue the next day. This, in turn, will most probably affect your performance at work. Try to develop good sleeping habits and keep a regular sleep schedule. If possible, take a short nap in the early afternoon to regenerate and recharge, but do not overdo it.
A common headache and fatigue trigger not to be taken lightly is stress. Working under tight deadlines can be daunting, but you have to try to minimize stress, for example, by scheduling tasks or establishing better communication with management, clients and co-worker. Remember that regular physical activity is thought to be a major stress reliever.
Overweight and hypertension
The link between sedentary behaviours and overweight has been known for a long time. Since IT specialists tend to spend hours sitting in front of a computer screen, it should come as no surprise that they are at great risk of developing overweight or even obesity. There are several reasons for it. One obvious factor is the inactivity of sitting, as a result of which your organism burns fewer calories. In addition, people with sedentary jobs are likely to munch on sweetened and salty snacks, eat irregularly and choose junk food over healthy diet, which does not help to prevent overweight. What is more, the researchers from Tel Aviv University discovered that placing your backside under mechanical pressure, such as sitting down for prolonged periods, actually makes the cells in your stomach turn into fat cells much faster. To make matters worse, larger weight is often associated with higher blood pressure levels.
Fortunately, there are a few steps you can take to reduce the risk of overweight and hypertension.
- Start with your diet: make healthy food choices and watch the portion sizes. Avoid fast food and processed food, and if you must snack, opt for fresh and dried fruit or nuts, instead of sweets. Eat regularly and make sure you do not skip meals.
- Cut down on coffee you drink throughout the day, as caffeine may raise your blood pressure. For the same reason, you should also quit smoking and limit your alcohol intake.
- If limiting your working hours is not an option, try to adopt a more active lifestyle after work: take regular exercise, go to a gym, start jogging, etc. If the weather conditions allow, leave your car in a garage and walk or cycle to work.
- Sit as little as possible. You can try working at a standing desk or just stand up as often as possible during breaks or at meetings. If you have a tolerant and progressive boss, ask them for a treadmill desk, which is taking the standing desk to a new level!
Between coding, developing new software and applications, IT professionals spend significant amounts of time working in front of a computer screen and putting their health and well-being at risk. Whether it is stress, eye muscle strain, pain in the back or headache, when unattended to, these issues may have serious health consequences and lower the productivity and performance of the workers. That is why, it is in the best interest of both the workers and employers to address these problems as soon as they start to occur, or better: prevent them from happening in the first place. Fortunately, with a few changes in the attitude and working environment, most of the health problems can be easily avoided or reduced to a large extent.