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Forget the Forklift: Desk Work is Risky Business

Women and older people at higher risk for repetitive stress injuries

SUNDAY, June 30, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Working at an office all day can be a real pain, and we're not just talking about your annoying boss.

The discomfort and pain that can come from sitting at a desk all day, doing the same repetitive motions, is very real, says Margareta Nordin, program director of ergonomics and biomechanics at New York University.

"It's a very common problem. Anyone and everyone who has work that forces them to sit continuously without changing posture sooner or later will experience some form of discomfort, which is a precursor to developing pain," she says.

Previous studies have shown that among people who sit all day at their jobs, one of every three will suffer pain at least once a week, with neck and hand/arm pain the most commonly reported.

Working for hours without getting up and walking around and having a poorly designed workstation that forces you into uncomfortable positions both contribute to office-related pain.

Add to that genetic risks, says Dr. Mark Melhorn, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Kansas and an ergonomics expert.

He says that while 35 percent of the pain experienced by office workers can be blamed on repetitive motion and office design, as much as 65 percent of the pain can be traced to individual risk factors.

"Older people are more at risk for pain because healing capacity drops as you get older. And women are at higher risk than men because they are on average 6 inches shorter, and all their body parts are smaller," he says. "Most everyday objects, like the keyboard layout, are designed for an average-sized man, so you have a larger percentage of women whose hands are too small for the keyboard."

Further, he says, people with diabetes, thyroid conditions and other disabilities that compromise blood circulation are also at increased risk for pain and injury when they are sitting in the same positions for long periods of time.

"Genetic risk impacts how we respond to musculoskeletal stress," Melhorn says. "If you have a person at greater risk for pain and then put them in a job that increases the risk further, you trigger a problem."

The good news, experts say, is that you can prevent these problems before they start with some simple changes in your habits.

First, check your workstation, Melhorn says, so you sit in the most natural position possible. Your elbows should be at your side, bent at a 90-degree angle over your keyboard and your wrists should be straight. Your computer screen should be five to seven degrees below your eye level so you're looking down at the screen, your chin tucked slightly down. This decreases stress on the neck.

Your office chair should support your lower back and have a good-sized seat pad so you can sit comfortably. Your feet should touch the ground with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle.

Before you start work, you can do some simple stretching exercises to get your blood circulating, Nordin says.

"Start with a skeletal stretch. Put your hands over your head and really stretch out. Then take several deep breaths, and let the air out slowly for three to five seconds," she says.

When you sit down at your desk, sit up straight. Lift your shoulders up to your neck and then release them to relax. Roll your shoulders back and forth. Rotate your wrists gently, both in a circle and up and down. Stretch your legs out under your desk. Do this throughout the day.

Also key, Nordin and Melhorn say, is to get up and move during the day.

"Static postures add increased demands on the body which can be just as disadvantageous as heavy lifting," Melhorn says. "And you should take a one- to two-minute rest break every 30 to 45 minutes."

Get up, get a drink of water, go talk to a colleague, Nordin says: "It's not so bad to have to get up and get something from the printer."

Also important is to recognize your symptoms early when they are easy to treat, she adds.

"Most people start out with non-specific pain that is easily treated with stretching exercises and rearranging their desktop," she says, "so you need to take some responsibility for yourself."

What To Do

For some tips on repetitive stress injuries, visit the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. An interesting site for parents about ergonomic recommendations for their children can be found at Cornell University.

SOURCES: Mark Melhorn, M.D., assistant professor, University of Kansas at Wichita, and ergonomics consultant; Margareta Nordin, Ph.D., program director, Ergonomics and Biomechanics, New York University, New York City
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