MOST OF THE TIME we sit down to relax and rest. Can you imagine when this simple action becomes excruciatingly painful? For some, it is an everyday reality. Chiropractors have found that spinal problems are affecting more young people in Hong Kong than ever before as the computer becomes an everyday part of our lives. Dr Vincent Chan Wan-ho, chairman of the Chiropractic Doctors Association of Hong Kong (CDAHK), said he was shocked when an 18-year-old patient of his was diagnosed with back spurs - calcification of the soft joint tissues under constant pressure - a disease which is usually confined to the middle-aged or elderly. In humans, the spine is as vital to the body as a trunk is to a tree. It connects many of our core nerves, muscular tissues and organs. Problems with the spine can cause persistent pain, numbness and fatigue, affecting different parts of the body, and adversely affecting our daily lives. A recent survey conducted by the CDAHK and City University identified improper posture at the computer as the major cause of spinal problems among university students. 'Many of us sit at the computer all day for studies, work and entertainment. Such a lifestyle can be damaging to the spine,' said Dr Chan. More than 70 per cent of the 944 university students interviewed in the study suffered from fatigue and sore muscles while using the computer. And nearly a quarter of them had persistent muscular pain thereafter. Dr Chan said these were potential symptoms of vertebral subluxation, or partial dislocation. Vertebral subluxation causes irritation to the surrounding nerves and interferes with the functioning of the tissues they control, including muscles and organs. The spine is not designed for long hours of sitting. However, more than half of the students said they spent at least three hours in front of the computer every day. Two-thirds of them did not take enough breaks. The majority used seats that were not height-adjustable, and the eye level of almost half of them was not parallel with the top of the monitor, causing improper neck angulations and muscular strain on the neck. Many also used seats without a back or armrests. Nearly a quarter of them suffered from persistent muscle pain after using the computer. 'Students should take a break from using the computer and stretch every 20 to 30 minutes,' said Dr Chan. The survey also showed that less than 15 per cent of the students knew how to maintain a proper posture. To avoid spinal problems, Dr Chan advises students to keep a 90-degree angle while bending their elbows or knees. They should sit with their back resting comfortably against the chair to minimise stress on the lower back. Height-adjustable monitors should be used, and adjustments made so the eye level is parallel with or slightly below the top of the monitor. They should also keep both feet on the floor, using a footrest for support if necessary. A keyboard wrist support could also reduce stress on the wrists. A healthy lifestyle is also important. Sufficient sleep gives back muscles the rest they need, and exercise helps loosen up tight muscles, strengthens weak muscles and improves the spine's range of motion. If musculo-skeletal problems arise, students should visit an orthopaedic specialist, chiropractor or physiotherapist. But Dr Chan said the first stop should be to a chiropractor. 'Physiotherapists focus on muscular problems, but many spinal diseases are usually not only about muscular pains, they also have to do with the spinal nerves.'