Time to change painful relationship with computers

 

NET RESULTS:Rise in Repetitive Strain Injury may lead to the development of speech-driven interfaces, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON

I’M SITTING in front of my laptop wearing a thingamajig on my right arm that takes me back to childhoods spent in summer camps in the States.

It’s a kind of fingerless glove with hard plastic rectangles that provide support on the back and the front of my arm. It resembles nothing so much as those forearm gauntlets worn for archery, so that you don’t get your arm whacked by the string on the bow.

But the reason I’m wearing this ugly black thing these days is not to relive those Robin Hood moments of summer camp, but to try and keep pain at bay. I’m one of the millions afflicted with RSI – repetitive strain injury – brought about from several decades of typewriter and then computer use.

I’ve got a lot of the typical problems – sore elbows and wrists and fingers, numbness and stiffness on and off in my hands; at its worst, shooting pains around my shoulder blades. Now and then, back problems.

It’s small consolation that many others are in the same uncomfortable boat. In the UK, surveys have pegged the number of RSI sufferers at about 500,000. In the US, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Osha) said in 2000 that about half of all workers would experience RSI. Half!

This type of pain and disability still goes largely unrecognised in the workplace, perhaps because it isn’t obvious to anyone but the sufferer, and because for most of us it comes and goes.

Still the economic impact is staggering. Northrop-Grumman in the US did a study that concluded the average cost of RSI is $27,500 and leads to 12 lost work days.

Osha says that RSI is the most common and costly worker affliction in the US, costing $20 billion annually. To put that in perspective, that’s about four times what the Bank of America is expected to repay to the US Treasury each year as part of the bank bailout across the water.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics noted back in 2000 that nearly two-thirds of all occupational illnesses reported were caused by repetitive strain and trauma to the upper body – the wrists, elbows, backs or shoulders of workers.

A lot of that must be due to typing at keyboards, something most of us now do whatever our occupation. Consider that if you type a relatively modest 40 words a minute, you tap 12,000 keys per hour or 96,000 keys per eight-hour day.

Typing is also an activity that transfers after-hours to the home as people play computer games, send e-mails, surf the net and use various electronic devices. No wonder so many of us are aching.

The names of RSI afflictions pinpoint the guilt of our digital addictions: stylus finger (from using touchscreen devices), Blackberry thumb, gamer’s thumb (from using gamepads and consoles).

A Microsoft UK study last year noted that repetitive strain injuries in Britain had surged by 30 per cent in 2008, at a cost of about €350 million per year in lost working hours. That’s a lot of worker productivity down the tubes.

For stationary workers, computer workstations can invite the likelihood of pain in any number of ways – keyboards and monitors positioned too low or too high, seating that is the wrong height or angle, poor hand position for typing, raising wrists too high with incorrect wrist support, poor posture when seated (leaning forward or backward).

Most of the problems, in other words, are caused by poor ergonomics, body positions that are subtle and go unnoticed. For example, a quick survey of any office will show that a lot of people choose to keep their computer to one side of the desk and turn slightly to one side to type.

I know the cumulative effect of that seemingly innocuous desk arrangement. To make room for my mouse on the too-small pullout keyboard shelf on my new desk, I had apparently rotated my body ever so minutely to the left to type.

About a year and a half later, I was in the doctor’s after my back went out. The resulting pain was centred exactly at the lower left of the base of my spine. Only then did I notice that I had a tiny rotation to the left when seated at my desk, and that rotation produced a definite twinge at the point where my back pain was located. Though minuscule, enough pressure on that area of the spine to cause serious back pain over time.

Given that small children are using gaming devices and keyboards from toddlerhood onward, and kids’ mania for texting on top of computer use and gaming, you have to wonder whether early-onset arthritis will become a leading affliction for those under 30, who’ve had this intense exposure longest.

We need different ways of interacting with devices.

Personally, I think mass incidence of pain is going to drive renewed development of speech-driven computer interfaces. In the meantime, be sure to get your ergonomics right when seated at a computer – and consider sacrificing style for comfort and embrace those ugly wrist protectors.

klillington@irish-times.com

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