Ask the Experts

Computer Cramp

I get a lot of muscle pain from using computers. How can I avoid this?

Any prolonged computer use will result in discomfort of some kind. Students and office workers alike can be afflicted by what is commonly known as repetitive strain injury. It is caused by being in the same position for a long time and results in the pain you have described. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to alleviate the problem.

The discomfort comes from repetitive movement and overuse of muscles which arises from studying and sitting at a desk for long periods. RSI is not a new affliction from computer use. It has been around since the days of manual labor and industrial work.

RSI is one of the leading workplace injuries, and it can result in more severe conditions called carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). Avacare Medical explains that carpal tunnel is a compression or twisting of the nerves in your wrist. The symptoms can range from mild to severe and include muscle pain, stiffness, tingling or numbness, and joint cramps.

Prevention is definitely better than the cure in this instance, and there are a number of things you can do to prevent the onset of RSI and CTS. Your posture when you are studying plays a key part in how your body will react to being in the same position. You should always try to sit up straight, with straight wrists and shoulders back. Ergonomics is everything; your body should be positioned so that your wrists are not taking all of the strain when you are typing. A footrest is generally a good thing to have to ensure your thighs are horizontal and bent at right angles at the knees. Good posture is also maintained through a level keyboard and screen at eye level. You should always use a chair with a back support, and do not hunch over the screen.

If you have a lot of pain, you should invest in an ergonomic chair. There are plenty available online. Web design firms recommend ergonomic keyboards and mice which reduce the stress on your wrists. Taking a break from your work is important. You should get up and walk around every 45 minutes or so. In addition to RSI, you are likely to develop eye strain and get headaches from looking at a screen for hours without a break.

One method is to see how long you can type without feeling any discomfort, then subtract ten minutes from this and rest at these intervals. Taking shorter breaks more frequently is better than one long break after several hours. As with any muscle pain, relief comes with stretching, so it would be advisable to stretch your wrists, shoulders, back and neck several times a day. There are plenty of online resources for effective stretching techniques.

RSI and CTS can lead to permanent damage if untreated so be aware of your sitting position and ergonomics and take five as often as possible.

“Even if you don’t have time for a big workout, stretching in the morning and night really changes your body.” — Erin Heatherton

Suzanne Hite is a former publications editor serving the technology services sector.