Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Computer vs Your Body

I've just spent more than two weeks where I was at the computer or the laptop every day for several hours or more. It takes a toll. I like to think it's just because I'm getting older, and it is, but as we become more and more reliant on computers and technology, and spend more hours in front of any screen, we're going to have to be more pro-active about the ongoing and accumulating effects of this.

Years ago, I worked for a printer as a typesetter. It was an old-style machine with font disks that had to be changed if you wanted to use a different font. One of the main components of the machine was a set of extra keys off to the right-hand side. Now we have a number keyboard there that most of us hardly use. Back then, I used those keys constantly for formatting, so it should have been no surprise to me when I got RSI. In other words, a huge amount of pain and inflammation up my right arm.

Eventually I had to give that job up. Later I also discovered that the rickety chair I sat on, which couldn't be raised or lowered, had undoubtedly made things worse. Aha, you think, it's all different now. We know about ergonomics and RSI and stuff like that. Yep, sure do. But how many writers do anything about it? I no longer have that particular RSI symptom - now I have a ganglion on my right hand from the mouse, and constant neck and shoulder problems. And I'm not the only one, according to writer friends.

So what are the things I am still doing wrong, despite knowing better? I still hunch in my chair instead of sitting up straight. I still struggle to find the best position for using my laptop, even though I now have a separate keyboard for it. I still get engrossed in what I'm working on and forget to get up and stretch. But at least I have a decent chair and it's at the right height.

We get our professional writing students to analyse their work areas to see what needs to be fixed or changed. I sometimes wonder how many of them actually do anything about it. But in the long term, if you don't, you are asking for ongoing, painful physical problems. Today, after several weeks of sustained computer work to meet some deadlines, I went off to have a massage as a reward. But I knew, all the same, that it wasn't just a reward. It was a necessity so that my back and shoulders would stop feeling like pretzels and I could walk straight and upright!

Don't take your time at the computer for granted. Stay aware of what your body is telling you, and do something about it. This is an ongoing problem - it will gradually get worse with time, and the longer you leave it, the harder it is to fix. Just ask my neck!


Kristi Holl said...

Boy, you are singing my song. I had to quit using my laptop so much and get back to my PC with the lower keyboard and better head angle. I also downloaded a free timer that goes off every 15 minutes. If I don't stop and stretch and do neck rolls, the pain gets bad in no time. I also got some "speak and your computer types for you" software that I use when my neck and hands hurt. It's not my favorite option, but it works when everything else hurts. :-)

Sherryl said...

I like the sound of that timer. I think I used to have one but it got lost over time (and computer failures). Maybe I need to download one as it is so easy to get engrossed and then seize up!

Linda Wyrill said...

Yep, I'm having some laptop free days too due to a sore neck and eye strain. A postgrad (external, online) plus the usual amounts of writing and proofreading has seen me visit the eye specialist twice in the past few months. When you're engrossed in your work, you sometimes forget to blink! Who would have thought the laptop could be such a health hazard. I still write poetry with pen, on paper. No hazards there so far!

Sherryl said...

Linda, I think laptops are going to be a huge problem for all of us. We expect them to be handy, but if you want to be ergonomic, you have to carry an extra keyboard and a stand with you (defeats the purpose of handy!). My laptop causes me twice the amount of pain in a quarter of the time. Pen, yes, absolutely!

Anonymous said...

Oh yes indeedy! I'm not a writer but a librarian in an academic library and my day involves mostly spreadsheets at a computer... I do one shift a week in our reference Help Zone and jump at the chance to fill in for others as it's an opportunity to get away from the computer and actually stand up for an hour! One strategy I have is to drink as much water as I can, forcing me to get up for pretty regular loo breaks :-)

Sherryl said...

The water drinking sounds like a good idea - and very healthy!