How to Prevent RSI when using Computers

Glen, Julie and I have all suffered from muscle strains as a result of our work and I know of at least two customers who have suffered RSI problems.  With the popularity of smartphones, iPads and touchscreens such problems have increased, so I thought you might find this a useful blog.  I am an IT professional not an expert in ergonomics, so I have shamelessly surfed the net.  Please note that we are not certified medical professionals. We have done our best to gather information on Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) from good sources on the Internet. You should consult a medical professional to get medical advice on RSI.

Tablets, iPads and SmartPhones

More and more people and businesses are using SmartPhones, iPads and Tablet PCs.  The medical profession is seeing more and more RSI injuries from these devices:

“With an increase in head and neck pain and posture issues coinciding with the rise in use of tablet devices, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have found that the flexible use of such technology means that there is concern for the development of neck and shoulder discomfort.”
Those who spend hours with an iPad sitting on a sofa are the most at risk, but many legal firms are pointing out that businesses have a duty to assess risk, so I summarise below the tips I found to avoid pain:

  • Posture: the worst position is lap use – holding a tablet on your lap can cause strain on a variety of your muscle groups and can cause eye strain.  Ideally, you want to be sitting up straight, looking straight ahead, holding your head in a neutral position.
  • Get the right set-up: purchase a case that lets you sit the iPad/tablet up and approach the positioning of it as you would a desktop computer, thinking about back, neck and hand positions.  Simply placing the tablet on a table propped at an angle in a tablet case can reduce neck strain and potential pain, but do think about the optimum angle.   Think about buying a separate keyboard if you plan to type a lot (typing on an iPad/tablet laid flat is apparently one of the worst positions).
  • Take regular breaks and stretch: take regular breaks where you stretch the muscles in your hands, shoulders and chest.  If you are using an iPad/tablet in a place where you cannot get the ideal posture, change your posture every 15 minutes.
  • Use both hands: balance the load, don’t dominate with one hand or the other – switching the holding arm frequently when reading will minimise strain in hand and arm.  Use both thumbs when texting.
  • Small text: avoid straining the eyes and bending into the phone to see the text.  Use the zoom facilities to make text larger and hold the phone up out in front of you to minimize the amount of neck flexion required to view the screen.

Taken from the following:
http://www.macworld.co.uk/ipad-iphone/news/?newsid=3419178.
http://www.everydayhealth.com/pain-management/is-your-ipad-causing-your-chronic-pain.aspx.
http://www.octa.com/ipad-ergonomics-best-practices-ipad/

Touch Screen PCs

With the launch of Windows 8 I am increasingly seeing all-in-one computers with touchscreens, but you won’t be surprised to know that they do not come without hazards.  Using a touchscreen in a vertical position when you are sitting down causes muscle fatigue, it’s even got a name – gorilla arm.  Basically, the constant reaching forward causes muscle ache and at what distance do you place the screen?  Too near and it causes eye strain, too far and you get arm ache.  According to the Guardian:

“Indeed, Apple’s Steve Jobs – not usually one to dismiss a pretty gadget on the grounds of uselessness – once said he’d never launch a touchscreen laptop because of what he called “gorilla arm”.  We’ve done tons of user testing on this,” he said back in 2010, “and it turns out it doesn’t work.  Touch surfaces don’t want to be vertical.  It gives great demo’s, but after a short period of time you start to fatigue, and after an extended period of time, your arm wants to fall off.””
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=why-touch-screens-will-not-take-over
http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2013/apr/09/windows-8-touchscreen-laptops-pain

Desktop Computers and Laptops

Much has been written about the ideal sitting position for desktop computers, so I am not going to repeat that here.  Increasingly laptops have replaced many computers, but the fact that they cause problems is so well established it is on the NHS website – see link below.  Again the problem is the position of the neck looking down and the fact that many people hunch over the laptop.

The easiest and cheapest solution is a separate monitor and/or keyboard and/or mouse that can be used at the desk, enabling the user to be sitting up straight, looking straight ahead, holding their head in a neutral position.  You may not be able to do a lot about your posture when mobile, but you can get a better position in the office to minimise the ‘repetitive’ bit of RSI.
http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/workplacehealth/Pages/laptophealth.aspx.

A Bit about Mice and Keyboards

As mentioned earlier, Glen, Julie and myself have all had muscle problems as a result of our work.  Julie is far more careful of how she holds the mouse and positions herself, and Glen and I now use ‘ergonomic’ mice (before you say anything we did offer a new mouse to Julie but she refused).  All we can relate here is our personal experiences.  We both take the mice around with us and use them whenever possible.  The ones we use are DXT mice.  Glen got tennis elbow and these were recommended to him as they let your arm assume a natural wrist position (whereas the standard mouse twists the wrist) and he has had no problems since.  Also, it requires less physical movement to move the cursor across the screen.  See http://www.cityergonomics.com.

One of our customers uses a contour roller mouse and I personally think it is better than the DXT mice we use (if less transportable and a lot more expensive).  I recently had a small hand injury and found that using the DXT mouse aggravated this, but when I used the customer’s roller bar there was no pain whatsoever.  Also, it puts the arm in the correct 90 degrees angle.

As I have said, we are not experts in this field and there are lots of other alternatives available – it is a question of finding the one that works for you.  Check out the link below for examples.

The way your hand is placed when you use keyboards is also important.  There are several keyboards out there that encourage you to ensure your hands are placed in the correct position.

http://www.rsi-shop.co.uk/browse_category.asp?id=44&item=Mice

A quick note about children

Children as young as 2 use iPads and tablets now, so I just wanted to say remember that everything that applies to your body also applies to children.

A final word

Finally, the key word in RSI is Repetitive – if you can avoid the repetition by changing position, changing hands, changing mice, changing keyboards, then it will help.  Mind you, if that had no caveats then Glen and I would have no problems as we are constantly changing all of these as we use your mice, sit at your desks, and use your keyboards.

Rebecca Mansbridge, Director
01787 881475