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TherapyXperts Maynooth

Parklodge Medical Centre
Parklands
Maynooth
Co. Kildare
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Neck strain

Who but Bill Gates and the guys from Apple would have believed when the first PCs appeared only a short 30 years ago that they would become such an integral part of daily life? PCs and laptops are at the core of work for many of us. Yet as I go around offices doing ergonomic assessments it always surprises me to see how badly placed computers are and in fact how unergonomically people work in general.

Just to set the matter straight: ergonomics is defined in The Oxford Dictionary as the study of ‘people’s efficiency in their work environment’. Efficiency can sound a little ‘big brother-ish’ but in movement terms, efficiency is the optimal use of muscles to perform a task in the best manner possible using least energy. Thus good ergonomics are all about doing your work in the manner that allows you to complete the day’s work without feeling tired or strained from inappropriate postures or badly designed tools.

The consequence of less than perfect ergonomics is an uncomfortable body. Sore achy or knotted neck and shoulder muscles are often the first symptom. The muscles of the neck are extremely hard working. They are in action the whole time except when lying down, so for most of us on average 16 hours each day. Every tiny movement of the head to see or hear involves slight contractions of these muscles. It has been estimated that we make over 2000 neck movements every waking hour. All this muscle activity coupled with a badly organised work area and common poor posture is a recipe for neck and sometimes eye strain.

If your job is predominantly deskbound and computer based, the layout of your desktop is one simple way to reduce strain. Check out your desk as follows. First clear out the area under the desk allowing you pull your chair fully into the desk. Take a good hard look around. Note how calm or busy your desk is. Perhaps make a list of the items you use frequently (PC, mouse, keyboard, phone, pens, stapler, etc) then the less commonly used items. Note whether the PC or laptop is in the centre of the desk or not.

In this pulled-in position, imagine two arcs around your body, an inner one with the things you use frequently and an outer one with less essential work tools. Without exception, the first rule is that the PC/Laptop should be directly in front of you. Sitting right into the desk, the edge of the keyboard should be in the centre of the inner arc, about 10cms from your stomach. The monitor should be straight ahead at relaxed arms length: extend you arm at shoulder level, bend the elbow slightly and your outstretched fingers should touch the screen. In my experience most people have their monitor much too far away. This contributes both to neck and eye strain as the neck muscles strain to pull the head forward to assist focus of the tiny eye muscles, straining these too. Bringing keyboard and screen closer instantly reduces muscle strain. A document stand should be level with the monitor so your eyes require minimal refocusing as they go from screen to copy.

Next place the other frequently used ‘tools of your trade’ evenly around the inner arc. A common fault is to find everything is grouped on the dominant hand side, leading to a large imbalance between muscle work on dominant and non-dominant halves of the body. If you are right handed leave a pen and paper on the right, but place phone, stapler, etc on the left so you turn slightly to both sides rather than only to the right.

I suggest that you also move the computer mouse to your non-dominant hand: controversial but obvious. It goes back to the birth of the mouse 25 years ago. Back then the hardware developers truly believed that their amazing mouse would fully replace a pen. They must all have been right handed, so they put the mouse on their right and this position has become the convention since. In fact, unlike the complex patterns and skill of writing, mousing is a very basic skill: left/right/double click, that’s all there is to it.

This simple pattern makes learning this skill on the non-dominant hand relatively easy. Just make the decision to swap sides, do it consistently for a few days and the new skill will become hard wired in the brain, as does the skill of riding a bicycle or driving a car. Once practised, non-dominant mousing is a really good way to share the workload around your neck and arm muscles to improve efficiency over the course of a working day.

The outer desk arc is where you place less vital items. These can be placed far enough away to cause you to stretch out of your usual sitting posture several times a day, making a natural mini postural break.
      
So in a nutshell good desk ergonomics can be condensed to two simple rules:

1. Keep frequently used tools close by
2. Share the workload on both sides

It’s as simple as that!


Mairead O’Riordan, MSc, MISCP is a senior Chartered Physiotherapist & CEO of TherapyXperts, an allied health network dedicated to clinical excellence.
      
      
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