TechTip: Arrange Your Workstation to Protect Yourself Against Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)

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Back pain, stiff neck, numb hands, eyestrain—sound familiar? They're among the many symptoms of repetitive strain injury (RSI), a condition estimated to affect millions of U.S. workers.

Surgery is an extreme solution that the wise would rather avoid. Fortunately, you can prevent or ease RSI in many ways, from altering certain habits to buying ergonomically designed equipment.

In an ongoing series, I'll describe tools and methods devised for just that purpose. We'll begin with a quick, inexpensive first step: adjusting the office equipment you already have.

Your Computer Monitor

Unless your monitor is positioned in a way that's comfortable to your back, arms, and eyes, you're asking for trouble. Ask a coworker to observe your head, neck, and shoulders as you work at the computer. (Explain that you'll do the same for him or her.)

Do you bend forward to see a monitor that's too low? The answer may be as simple as putting a phone book or reams of paper beneath the monitor. This humble solution worked for Steve Shostack—now a User Experience Architect at Resolute Corporation—when he was an ergonomics consultant to NASA.

The opposite problem pains wearers of bifocals and trifocals, whose lenses are usually divided into a large "distance" section on top and a small "reading" section below. You may tip your head up to raise the "reading" section to the screen's height. Instead, try to lower the monitor or push it farther away (so you can see more of the screen). If you cannot lower or push the monitor away, you may need different glasses, perhaps a separate pair with a larger "reading" section.

Your Chair

Basic recommendations for chair use can be found at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. Your chair's seat should be low enough for your feet to touch the floor (or a footrest), yet high enough that your hip joints are slightly higher than your knees. Your elbows should be even with, or slightly higher than, your keyboard. Your forearms will extend in a gently sloping angle.

Your needs may differ from those of others. For example, although most people seem to use armrests, my long arms feel freer without them. I removed the armrests from my chair.

Your Mouse

Computer mice require a fixed hand position and precise movements, both potential causes of hand strain. Steve Shostack advises, "If the mouse is causing discomfort, try switching to a trackball for a few hours per day. If that's not possible or doesn't help, try switching hands when mousing. At first, this may feel awkward, but in the long run you'll benefit from the rest you provide the injured hand." Note that some mice are curved to accommodate only right hands. You will need a hand-neutral mouse in order to switch.

If you are right-handed, you have another reason to learn left-handed mousing. Most full-size computer keyboards have number pads on their right sides, pushing the mouse further to the right. Paul Linden, Ph.D., author of Comfort at Your Computer, notes that the right-side number pad causes extra strain in right-handed mousing. To make the difference palpable, Linden suggests this demonstration:

"Try holding your right hand out just past the right edge of the keyboard, where the mouse would be," he says. "Then try holding your left hand out past the left edge of the keyboard. It is usually clear to people that holding the hand farther out is a strain."

Linden has found that aside from graphics professionals, whose work requires extreme precision, most people adapt quickly to switching mousing hands.

More Important Tips

In future issues, this continuing series will explain how to reduce eyestrain, develop healthy habits, avoid overuse of the computer mouse, and take self-enforced breaks to improve comfort and productivity.