This article first appeared in Today's Dallas Woman, May 1997

Avoiding Work Related Injuries

What you can do

While your career presents many daily mental challenges, you may believe that you'll never face the physical challenge of an on-the-job injury. After all, you probably don't work in a warehouse where you have to throw around heavy boxes. Nor do you move furniture or deliver heavy, bulky office supplies.

Your sedentary, sit-at-the-desk-all-day job could, however, leave you at just as much risk for workplace injuries as your warehouse and furniture-moving colleagues. In today's era of 12-hour work days and excessive telephone and computer use, job-related injuries involving neck, shoulders, back and arms are increasing.

The human body was not meant to sit in one place for long periods of time. By the same token, hands were never meant to pound on keyboards, nor were necks and shoulders developed to cradle heavy, bulky telephone receivers.

In my chiropractic practice, we're seeing an increase of "computer shoulder," "telephone shoulder," and "office chair backache," as well as the more well-known "carpal tunnel syndrome." Although many of these injuries aren't found in the medical dictionary, they are real -- and can cause a great deal of crippling harm.

You may have already experienced minor forms of these injuries. You know how tight your shoulders feel after hunching over a computer keyboard all morning. You feel the ache in your lower back when you've been forced to sit in your office chair for hours on end so you can get that deadline-oriented project out the door.You know how stiff your shoulders and neck can become after a prolonged telephone conversation where you're cradling the receiver. And unfortunately, you probably know all about the physical manifestations of emotional stress -- a tight jaw, headaches, stiff shoulders, and a sore upper back.

Stiffness isn't the worst that can happen, however. Rounded shoulders and a slumped posture ultimately create considerable stress on the spine, eventually causing neck and upper back problems. If left untreated, you could suffer headaches or even osteoarthritis (degeneration of the joints).

Nor are the back and neck the only vulnerable points on your body. An estimated one in 10 Americans will develop carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), a numbing condition that can become permanently debilitating. Symptoms can vary from pain in the fingers, wrists, and forearms to numbness, tingling, and loss of finger motor control. CTS occurs when nerves inside the protective wrist sheath, or "tunnel," become inflamed through improper use of hands and arms. The pounding that fingers, wrists and arms take during a long session at the computer can be one culprit of CTS, as can gripping something hard for hours on end, such as a pen.

The good news is that you can avoid -- or at least minimize -- workplace injuries with the following suggestions.

Icon Take frequent breaks throughout the day. Whether you're at risk for a badback or painful wrists, stop what you're doing at least once an hour and stand up. Move around. Stretch out. That urgent project can wait five minutes!

Icon Watch your posture. Many of today's workplace injuries are aggravated by poor posture. Many people "jut" their heads out to see the computer screen better, or use their necks and shoulders to cradle telephones. The best thing you can do for your neck is to keep your entire spine in its proper alignment. If you aren't certain what good posture "feels" like, talk to your chiropractor.

Icon Keep in shape. If you aren't in shape, get there. Part of the cause of many back problems is weak back and stomach muscles caused by a sedentary lifestyle and obesity. Strengthening your abs is one good way to provide good back support, as is gently building your back muscles. If you're not sure about which back exercises to do, consult your chiropractor.
And you don't need to join a fancy health club -- walking 20 minutes a day and practicing a regular stretch regimen (such as yoga) can do wonders to tone and strengthen your entire body.

Icon Develop an ergonomically-sound work space. Even if you can't afford those fancy chairs and desks, you can convert your workspace into one that's easier on your back, neck and wrists. Make sure your chair has a straight back and is set so your feet are flat on the floor (use a footstool, if necessary). Place a small "lumbar roll" in the small of your back for support. Raise your keyboard so that your wrists don't "break" when you type, and make sure that your forearms are parallel with the floor. Also, set your computer monitor high enough so you're looking at it straight on. One final note, if you use the phone a good deal, invest in a telephone headset so you aren't forced to "balance" the phone between shoulder and neck.

Icon If you suffer from pain or stiffness in your back neck or arms, contact a professional immediately. Many insurance companies today are recognizing the high cost of workplace injuries. As a result, many policies will now cover chiropractic and orthopedic care.

While technology has helped make today's office more efficient and productive, it's also created a new realm of muscle, tendon, and joint problems. But these problems are avoidable. With a little forethought and common sense, you can help put an end to these '90s workplace injuries.

Graphic from Prevention Magazine, 1991

Dr. Suzan J. Smith is a chiropractor in Carrollton, TX. She teaches yoga classes and has released a yoga video for beginners and intermediates and a second yoga video for pregnant women.

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