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Why You Need Ergonomic Gear Now

High Tech Hurts

Use the phrases “computer” and “repetitive-strain injury” (RSI) in the same sentence and most people will immediately think of carpal tunnel syndrome—for good reason. I’ve had it. My wife has had it. So has her mom, and she needed surgery to correct it. But carpal tunnel syndrome isn’t the only injury related to computer use. I was also facing a fair amount of lower back pain in my early 30s from logging in 10 to 12 hours each day at my desk. This site’s editor, Rachel Rosmarin, suffers from similar neck and back issues. If you don’t know at least one desk jockey with computer-related stress disorders, I’d be shocked.

The problem doesn’t simply exist among writers and editors, either. A 2005 paper by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries offers this:

“The magnitude, cost, and burden of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) are enormous. From 1992-2000, there were 380,485 Washington state-accepted workers' compensation state fund claims for nontraumatic soft tissue musculoskeletal disorders of the neck, back, and upper extremity. These claims resulted in $2.9 billion in direct costs and 26.9% of all state fund workers' compensation claims. Of WMSD claims during this time period, 32.4% were compensable with an average of 123 lost time days per compensable claim.”

Admittedly, these general government studies span all industries, from temp help in offices to roofers and chicken butchers, and the state of Washington doesn’t break out which injuries are computer-related. Still, RSIs constitute 62% of all North American workers' compensation claims, and my guess is that the number of hours spent on computers is rising faster than the adoption rate of ergonomic equipment designed to counteract RSIs. It follows that the problem is probably getting worse rather than better.

What’s behind the wide range of soft-tissue injuries that plagues computer users? Many, many, many little things. Nerves get compressed. Blood flow gets constricted to certain areas. Small muscle groups get strained from overlong tension and lack of release. Any or all of these and similar problems can result in small, localized injuries. Taken individually, such “micro-injuries” are no big deal. We get them all the time, and the body simply heals them. But if the pace of repeated injury outstrips the body’s healing capabilities, then the injuries accumulate, passing from annoying to sore to painful to agonizing—and permanent.