After a busy stretch of work this fall, I found myself with both a sense of accomplishment and an unexpected problem: pain in my hand that made me wince every time I typed an ‘O’ or ‘L.’ I’m a veteran of muscle soreness and joint damage from a lifetime of sports. But an injury from sitting at my computer? It seemed so boring.
Dramatic or not, my experience is typical, says Alan Hedge, director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. According to his surveys, at least 80 percent of employees in offices, call centers and similar settings report aches, pains and musculoskeletal discomforts related to work.
Discomfort is the first step toward developing work-related injuries, which caused about 2.8 million nonfatal, private-industry injuries and illnesses in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The most common injuries include soreness or pain, sprains and cuts. Even if you don’t have a workplace injury — yet — experts recommend getting ahead of the pain.
“Prevention is better than reaction,” Hedge says. “You don’t want to wait until you are hurting to think about these things.”
Many workplace injuries are caused by falls, run-ins with equipment or heavy lifting. Others are like mine — a result of repetitive motions that can target necks, shoulders, elbows, wrists or hands. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a well-known condition, but there are plenty of other ways to harm the upper limbs.
Typing is an insidious threat. Each tap of the keyboard seems small, but typing at an average pace — about 6,000 keystrokes per hour, multiplied over seven hours each day for five days — adds up to more than 20 tons of force that your fingers have to deal with over a workweek, Hedge says.
“Cumulatively, small amounts of force add up to big amounts of force on the body,” he says.
During my busy stretch, construction was going on in my home. So for weeks, I was working primarily in cafes, coworking spaces and other places — without my comfortable office chair or external keyboard and monitor. On my laptop, my hands tend to tilt upward, and that position dramatically amplifies the forces imposed on the wrists, Hedge says.
Hounded by deadline pressure, my muscles were also probably tense, which makes tendons pull with more force and increases the likelihood of pounding too hard on the keyboard. Most people already use four times more force on computer keys than necessary, Hedge says. Under stress, we tend to hit keys eight times harder than we need to.
Regulations offer little help. Globally, several organizations offer guidelines for ergonomic workstation setups, including one standard approved in the United States by the American National Standards Institute in 2007. Published by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society and called ANSI/HFES-100, the standard includes recommendations for manufacturers about how much pressure should be required to push keys on a keyboard or the buttons on a mouse.
But there are no legal requirements to follow the guidelines, Hedge says. The standards are based on comfort, not health. And because people come in many shapes and sizes, there’s no guarantee that the standards are ideal for everyone — even if companies prioritized them. The majority of keyboards are designed for male hands, for example, causing the average woman’s smaller hands to do 30 percent more work during the same typing tasks.
With more people working from home, work-related injuries can proliferate, says Mirtha Perazza, an ergonomist at the Ergonomics Center at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Freelancers like me are on our own to set up workstations, and it’s hard to get it right. Perazza sees a lot of people with neck issues because their monitors are too low, or with shoulder and elbow troubles because their keyboards are too far from their bodies.
To avoid accusations of favoring specific manufacturers, neither Perazza nor Hedge would recommend specific products. But Perazza suggests investing in a good chair with adjustable features and good lumbar support. She also advises using an external keyboard and monitor, so that you’re not hunching or looking down.
Other tips: The top of your screen should be at eye level. Shoulders should be relaxed but, Hedge says, joints don’t need to be at 90-degree angles. Keyboards and mice should be the right size for your hands. Split-style keyboard designs can help keep your hands in a neutral position. To find the right fit, Perazza says, it might be worth visiting a computer store instead of shopping online.
One warning: avoid trusting claims that products are “ergonomic.” The term is not regulated and there is no certification process. “At the moment, you can say anything is ergonomic,” Hedge says. “It’s as useful as saying something is low-fat.”
Taking breaks and moving throughout the day are also important, according to growing evidence. In one recent study, Hedge and a colleague looked at 100 American adults as they completed a 60-minute typing task in one of three conditions. Some only sat. Some only stood. And a third group did two rounds of a mixed protocol: sitting for 20 minutes, then standing for eight, then stretching and walking for two.
Results, which have been submitted but not yet published, showed no differences in how much typing each group completed. But those who only sat ended up with 22 percent more mental fatigue than the other groups. Those who only sat or only stood had 15 percent more physical fatigue than those who did both. Standing for the entire hour also increased musculoskeletal discomfort, while those who were up and down had a 3 percent reduction in discomfort. A study in India produced similar results.
Although evidence has linked too much sitting with heart problems, sitting itself is not necessarily bad, Hedge says. And standing is not the answer to all problems — too much standing can cause other pains.
Instead, results suggest the best strategy is to change positions throughout the day. This is what Hedge did during our 30-minute phone call. I would have never known he was mobile, but when I asked, he told me he had been standing and walking at first, then shifted to an active chair that allows for moving while sitting. “Variety is the spice of life when it comes to your body,” he says. “Mix it up.”
If discomfort strikes, Perazza recommends seeking medical help. “The earlier you can get intervention,” she says, “the more likely you will turn out not to have an injury.”
I missed the boat on prevention this time, but I am taking steps to ward off future injuries — moving around more and using my computer’s dictation feature to type less. I plan to make it through the next busy stretch with no drama at all.