Although there’s no surefire way to tell if you have a stress-related injury, be wary of any pain, numbness, weakness, stiffness, tingling, or other unusual sensation in your neck, back, shoulders, arms, or hands, especially after a stint at your Mac. Symptoms may be delayed or intermittent, so don’t discount them just because they crop up hours or days later. If you suspect you have a problem, here are some steps you can take:
Seek Attention Resist the urge to “work through” the pain—you may end up aggravating the injury. If you think that your symptoms may be related to computer use at work, visit your company’s employee health service to put your complaint on the record—in many cases, employers will pay for new equipment, and even medical care. If you’re not sure where to go, ask someone in the human resources department.
Read about It There’s a wealth of advice and self-help resources in print. Repetitive Strain Injury: A Computer User’s Guide (Wiley, 1994), by experts Dr. Emil Pascarelli and Deborah Quilter, is a classic introduction to RSI. Another good choice is Dr. Pascarelli’s Complete Guide to Repetitive Strain Injury: What You Need to Know about RSI and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (Wiley, 2004).
Go Online The Web is a good source for information, as long as you cross-check recommendations before following them. The Typing Injury FAQ site features a comprehensive collection of articles and links about preventing and treating RSIs. Carnegie Mellon University and UCLA offer helpful tips on office ergonomics and how to set up workstations.
See a Doctor The list of health-care professionals who deal with CRDs includes physicians, chiropractors, and physical therapists (or physiotherapists). Just make sure that person is experienced in diagnosing and treating CRDs. Ask coworkers or friends for referrals, or consult an RSI support group in your area for advice. (The Typing Injury FAQ site includes listings of self-help groups sorted by location.)
Mundane tasks such as answering the phone, jotting notes, and reading documents can take their toll if you’re not careful. So pay attention to the following:
Phone Positioning When you’re on the phone, make sure you don’t twist your body or cradle the handset between your head and shoulder. If you need to have both hands free while chatting, buy a headset and microphone.
Lighting Make sure that your environment is bright enough so you can see without straining, but not so intense that it overwhelms your computer display. Direct lighting is great for illuminating your keyboard and paperwork, but avoid lights that shine directly into your eyes or cause screen glare.
Temperature Most people are comfortable at about 68 degrees, but tastes vary. Try to avoid working directly under an air conditioning vent or other source of blowing air.
The 411 on RSIs and CRDs
Here are some of the terms commonly referenced in discussions about computer-related stress injuries.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: a condition that’s caused by pressure on a nerve in the wrist.
CRD (Computer-Related Disorder): any type of computer-induced illness.
RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury): the most common type of CRD, it occurs when small repetitive motions (typing, mousing, and so on) injure tendons and other body parts.
Tendons: bands of tissue that connect bones to muscles.
Ulnar Deviation: stressful outward angling of the hands caused by conventional keyboards.
[ Dr. Franklin N. Tessler is a radiologist in Birmingham, Alabama. He writes about ergonomics regularly for Macworld.]