Ways to Reduce Your Risk of a Repetitive Strain Injury at Work
The catchall term, “repetitive strain injury,” refers to any of a number of disorders caused by prolonged repetition of forceful or awkward movements, especially of the arms and hands. While many sports and other activities can cause repetitive strain injuries, working at a computer all day is an enormous risk factor. Repetitive strain injuries can damage the tendons, muscles, and nerves of the hands, arms, shoulders, and neck, leading to weakness, pain, numbness and reduced motor control. Fortunately, there are ways to reduce your risk of developing a repetitive strain injury at work.
The primary risk factors are poor technique, poor posture, and overuse. You are at particular risk if you use a computer more than four hours per day, especially if your job requires heavy input such as constant typing or mouse clicking. Those who work in a high-pressure environment, take infrequent breaks, do not exercise regularly, are overweight, have a medical condition such as diabetes or arthritis, or have naturally loose joints are even more at risk.
The major warning sign of a repetitive strain injury is pain somewhere in your hands, arms, or shoulders. It is typically worse after a long stretch at your computer. Other common signs include tingling, numbness, or weakness in the hands or forearms. You may also notice a lack of coordination, loss of hand strength, and frequent self-massage. You might start to change your habits, such as using your nondominant hand more often, avoiding bracelets due to tender wrists, or even buying clothing that is easier to put on.
Fortunately, following a few simple tips can dramatically reduce your risk of developing a repetitive strain injury at work:
Use good posture: Ergonomic workstations are not cheap, but your health is worth it. Talk to your employer about providing an ergonomic setup. If you are refused, at least invest in a good chair that supports your spine while your feet are flat on the floor. Position your computer monitor so that your eyes are roughly level with the top of the screen, your mouse close to your keyboard, and your keyboard just above thigh level. Consider buying an ergonomic keyboard if your job involves a lot of typing.
Take breaks: Every hour, get up and moving. Stretch your tight muscles, walk around, drink some water, and let your eyes rest by looking off in the distance.
Minimize computer use: When possible, walk down the hall to talk to coworkers rather than sending email. Think carefully before you type to reduce editing. Resist the urge to spend your evenings on your computer or phone, instead allowing your body to rest from the day’s work.
Float your hands above the keyboard: Move your entire arm when using hard to reach keys or operating the mouse. Use two hands for combination keystrokes.
Exercise regularly: Be sure to stretch and strengthen your hands, wrists, neck, and shoulders frequently.
There is no guarantee that you will not develop a repetitive strain injury at work. Following the tips above, though, will help you minimize your risk. If you do experience signs of an injury, rest and ice as much as possible, and use gentle stretching to get your body moving properly again.
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