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Technology: Helpful or harmful?

Popular technology devices, like smartphones, laptops and tablets, offer a convenient way to juggle career, friends and family – all while on the go. As helpful as technology can be when maintaining a busy schedule, there are potential harmful side effects from sleeping next to your Blackberry or spending hours on your laptop.

Ruth Gronde, a Piedmont ergonomic therapist, says she sees patients with technology-related pain in their neck, back, wrists, hands, elbows and more. She shared the following tips for safely handling the devices you reach for throughout the day.  

How to prevent computer mouse-related injuries

Surprisingly, it’s not the keyboard that causes the most stress on the hands, wrists and arms – it’s the computer mouse.

“Most of the calls I get at my office are related to the computer mouse,” says Gronde. “Repetitive overuse of the mouse can cause hand pain, tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow and nerve compression, depending on the pressure on the underside of the wrist.”

She especially sees these injuries in workers who use software applications that require frequent mouse use. To reduce your chances of injury, follow these tips:

  • The mouse should be placed close to the keyboard within easy reach.

  • When using a mouse, make sure your elbow is not bending more than 90 degrees. Adjust the height of your chair and keyboard tray to make sure your mouse is near elbow height.

  • Place your mouse directly in line with your elbow so you do not have to angle your arm to use it.

  • Avoid propping up your arm on your chair’s armrest or on your desk surface when using the mouse. Keep your arm relaxed at your side and your hand relaxed on the mouse.

  • Don’t rest your hand on the mouse when you’re not using it. Take the opportunity to stretch and shake out your hand.

  • Alternate using the mouse with using keystrokes whenever possible.

  • If you must use your mouse for long periods of time, consider switching to your non-dominant hand occasionally.

How to prevent laptop-related injuries

“Unless you’re using your laptop frequently as a portable device, set it up as a regular PC,” advises Gronde. “The monitor should be directly opposite your eyes. Attach an external keyboard and mouse to keep proper alignment.”

Try these tips to reduce your chance of injury:

  • The screen should be perpendicular to your line of vision. Sitting in your chair, extend your arm straight forward. Your fingertips should barely touch your computer monitor. Adjust the distance if the monitor is too close or too far away.

  • Adjust the computer so your keyboard is at elbow height and you can keep your wrists straight while typing.

  • Take stretch breaks every 20 to 30 minutes.

  • Maintain a neutral position in your neck and back. Avoid hunching over or twisting to the side for long periods of time.

  • Follow the 20/20/20 rule to avoid blurred vision at the end of the day: Every 20 minutes, look away from your computer for 20 seconds at something at least 20 feet away. If your eyes feel dry during computer work, consider using rewetting drops to maintain comfort.

How to prevent smartphone-related injuries

The overuse of smartphones can lead to thumb pain, which “can be an aggravation of underlying arthritis or tendinitis from overuse of the thumbs.”

In fact, experts have coined the term “Blackberry Thumb,” as frequent emailing can lead to pain in the muscles at the base of the thumb and wrist. Try these tips to reduce your chances of injury:

  • Use a computer instead of your smartphone for emailing whenever possible, especially if you are typing a long message.

  • Use typing shortcuts on your smartphone to reduce the amount of time you spend typing a message.

  • Choose a smartphone that has a full keyboard to reduce the amount of taps you need to write a message or email.

  • Give your thumbs a break and use your other fingers when typing.

  • Use the pad of your finger to type, not the tip of your fingernail.

  • Hold the device in a vertical position to reduce the distance your thumbs must reach to key in a text message or email.  

  • Whether making a call on your cell phone or desk phone, use a hands-free option, such as Bluetooth, speakerphone or a headset. Bending your elbow for extended periods of time while talking on the phone can lead to cubital tunnel syndrome, or what orthopaedic surgeons call “cell phone elbow.”

  • If you must hold your phone to your ear, switch hands frequently.

  • Avoid holding the phone between your shoulder and your ear while you type, as this can cause neck and arm pain. Maintain good posture and neutral alignment when talking on the phone.

By following these ergonomically friendly rules, you can reduce your chances of long-term injuries that could require surgery. Luckily, Gronde says most technology-related pain is reversible through behavior modification.

“You can change your posture and patterns of use to reverse a condition,” she says. 

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