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December 27, 2012 at 8:04 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Are You Being Abused by Your Computer?

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

Like many Americans, I spend a significant amount of time looking at a computer screen each day. I tote this trusty laptop around at work, using it to take notes, look up information, and communicate in other ways. At night, I pull it out again and engage even more in communication and entertainment. It's a love-hate relationship really. I simultaneously can't imagine my life without my computer, while I also dream about a life without this screen in front of my face for so much of my day. Sometimes the relationship can get downright abusive - including aches, pains, and strain from the use. Computers can be hard on us. This blog will cover common adverse affects of computer use along with strategies for prevention.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome 

Those who use the keyboard frequently, tapping away at keys every day, are susceptible to carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). In our wrists lie a conduit with "wiring" for all the important functions of our hands. Arteries carry blood in and veins take it out. Tendons perform the more complex tasks of the hands. Nerves transmit information in and out of the hands. All this special stuff is bundled up nicely and wrapped in a sheath to keep it safe as it passes through the wrist. The problem is that, with too much use of the fingers (tapping on keys), the tendons become inflamed, swollen, and scarred. This increases their size and in the confined space the nerves get pushed on. This syndrome manifests itself as numbness in the hand (particularly the thumb and two fingers next to it) and weakness. 

The most important and effective treatment is removal of the cause. In other words, take a break from the typing. For some, this is not an option. Stand-ins involve using a brace to help expand the tunnel or antiinflamatory medication. When these fail, the ultimate fix is surgery to open up the tunnel and clean up scar tissue. 

Before these symptoms develop, however, preventative practice can fend off CTS. This primarily involves use of an ergonomic keyboard designed to provide better hand position when tapping on the keys. Frequent breaks from the keyboard help too. 

Neck Pain

Holding the neck in a non-neutral position for hours on end causes pain. While it doesn't seem like it, that head of yours weighs around 10 pounds. Those neck muscles get quite a workout when they need to keep the head balanced on its axis. When we look at a computer screen for an extended time, the muscles are held fixed and isolated. In most day-to-day activities, the head is moving and various muscles are relieved when others take over. This isn't the case when our heads are fixed in place viewing an anchored computer screen.

To solve the issue, put your computer screen in a position that will allow your head to be in a neutral position (straight out from your face so that you are neither flexing or extending your spine). This may involve adjusting your screen or your chair. Second, move your neck periodically. Take a break or stretch by rolling your neck around your shoulders.

Shoulder Strain

This one is a lot like neck pain. There postural muscles are located between your shoulder blades and they are known as rhomboids.  The rhomboids allow you to hold your arms out in front of you. Holding your arms out for a moment is relatively easy, but if you try that for an hour, you'll see that it becomes much more difficult. That's because these muscles are not "work horse" muscles that can sustain for long durations. Holding your arms out in front of you typing or mousing for long periods will leave you with that searing pain between your shoulder blades.

The solution to this is getting an arm rest on your chair that supports your elbows while you use the computer. Taking periodic breaks also helps. The rhomboids can be stretched by giving yourself a hug, trying to get your arms as much around your body as you can. 

Eye Strain

Staring at the back-lit computer screen for long periods can be hard on your eyes. Your eyes themselves can take it quite well, but the muscles around the eyes may have to work to help focus and dim the light a bit. 

Like the rhomboids, the muscles around the eyes are not meant to work long hours or be held in place for long periods and over-use leads to a headache. People who experience headaches as a result of prolonged use of a computer should tone the back lighting down and schedule an eye check-up to assess their near vision. Proper vision and lighting takes the work off the eye muscles as much as possible. Periodic breaks away from the computer screen can also help.  Sometimes just closing the eyes for a minute can help, but don't fall asleep!

Addiction

Anything pleasurable can lead to addiction, which occurs when aspects of normal life are forsaken for an activity or it interferes with normal functioning (work productivity, relationships, grooming). The computer has served as the vehicle for many addictions, some classic like gambling, shopping, and pornography and some emerging like gaming, chatting, and social networking.

In assessing whether a problem exists, a tool can be adapted from the alcohol assessment known as the CAGE questions. They are: 

  • Have you ever tried or felt the need to Cut down on your use?
  • Has anyone ever expressed Annoyance at your use? 
  • Have you ever felt Guilty about your use? 
  • Have you ever used as an Eye-opener (first thing in the morning)? 

Computers have opened up a whole new world for us that can be exciting, but as with all things, moderation is necessary. If you feel that there is a problem and are unable to cut back, a therapist can help create a plan for moderation.

In Conclusion 

Computers are our friends, and, as with any friendship, there are bound to be ups and downs.  Don't let your computer abuse you. Simple measures and checks can prevent the common problems that arise as we engage with our computers.

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