Prevention always the best practice

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 May, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 May, 1996, 12:00am

Remember the good old days when all monitors were that funky-green monochrome and drawing a pie chart took an advanced knowledge of mathematics - not to mention computer manuals that were incomprehensible at best? Now monitors have millions of colours, rotatable 3-D graphics and manuals that you can pretty much understand, if you try.

One of the most interesting changes in these manuals over the last few years has come in the form of detailed, multi-angle drawings that explain the correct position for your monitor, your keyboard, your mouse, your chair, etc.

I bought a Kensington Turbo Mouse last week and nearly half the hardware manual was about proper body position and use of the mouse, including a section titled, 'Suggested Additional Reading.' The root of all this extra attention to proper body position, work habits and the like is RSI, or Repetitive Stress Injuries. They can come from excessive typing, mousing or even repetitive movements during exercise. Tennis elbow, for example, is a form of RSI.

Almost anyone who spends long days in front of a keyboard has experienced pain in the hands, wrists, arms or shoulders. Although the problem begins as simple pains and aches, if left unattended it can lead to nerve damage and loss of movement in the hands, wrists and arms.

The number of sites on the Internet that deal with RSI is almost unbelievable. A print out of the Typing Injury FAQ took up 19 pages and contained links to over 200 sites dealing with RSI, ergonomic and stress reducing product. The FAQ also listed software designed to help reduce such injuries.

Another Web page quoted a US Department of Labour Statistics survey which stated that RSI accounted for 56 per cent of all illnesses in the US in 1990, up from 14 per cent in 1978.

This year's survey shows that among those workers who missed work because of RSI, over 36 per cent were absent for more than 31 days.

Miriam Owen is the office manager of a small company in Hong Kong and spends most of her day in front of a computer. She first developed RSI nine years ago while working in Scotland.

'I got it two years after working from nine to five on a keyboard,' Miriam said. 'I think I had heard of it, but at that time it was still disputed as to whether or not it was a real affliction.' Miriam went to her doctor after experiencing loss of movement and pain in her hands.

'I couldn't stretch my palm out,' she said. 'I couldn't flatten my hand.' Her doctor took an X-ray and sent her home with a bottle of anti-inflammatory pills which did little to relieve her suffering.

Today Miriam still battles regularly with the damage that has been done by years at a computer. She is no longer able to open tightly sealed jars or turn keys in a stiff lock. Pain in her wrists, hands and arms bothers her regularly.

Looking back on her career and the effect it has had on her body, Miriam said: 'If I had known about it [RSI] I wouldn't have done it at all.' The big question is, of course, what do you do to avoid getting RSI? I attempted to follow the suggestions listed in my Kensington manual, and found that I would need a special desk and the dexterity of a yoga master just to set up my mouse, keyboard, monitor and chair in the optimal position. Possibly exacerbated by my 6'3' frame, the positioning requirements aren't likely to be there even for people who spend large amounts of time behind the keyboard. Few of us have the luxury of a desk that allows us to raise or lower the monitor. Although phone books have been an unofficial substitute for years.

There does not seem to be any definitive answer to the question of what causes RSI, but some experts believe that it is caused by a build-up of lactic acid in the tissue that occurs when muscles are repeatedly stressed.

One of the reasons for the emphasis on posture is to allow the blood to circulate more freely in the body. Studies have shown that frequent short breaks to allow the muscles time to relax and clear away the lactic acid dramatically reduces the chance of developing RSI.

Most computer hardware manuals and Internet resources suggest that by interspersing typing with phone calls, filing, or any other activity that allows workers to get their hands off the keys can help to avoid RSI. A comfortable position that does not strain your joints or cause you to reach too far for your mouse and keyboard is also recommended.

Your monitor should be directly in front of you and not off to one side or the other. The top of the screen should be at eye level and about 18 to 30 inches away from you. Both the keyboard and the mouse should be placed at a level and angle that allows the wrists and arms to remain in a neutral, unstrained position.

Of course, with all of these injuries, the market for products to help prevent RSI is growing. These include everything from desks to ergonomic keyboards to software and hardware helpers that force regular breaks.

Considering the amount of lost productivity that occurs when workers miss over a month of work, investment in these stress saving devices may well be worth the cost for individual computer users and employers.