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Is Your Computer Killing You?

You would think being forced to cancel a ski trip because of a work emergency would be punishment enough. But it's not. Toiling (or even playing) away on your computer is cramping more than your style — it's hurting your body and your mind. It's not doing your planet much good, either.

Rest assured, hard-core computer fans, we're not going to suggest that you abandon your dual-core screamer and take up knitting. This is an online tech journal, after all. Just as we recognize that automobiles can be dangerous but still love a music-blaring ride in a souped-up ragtop, we want you to know the dangers of computing — and how to avoid them.

Read on for the top ten ways computing can hurt you — but watch your posture, OK?

1. Repetitive Stress Injuries

When the Internet was in its infancy, a new generation of computer users began working on their keyboards for 15 hours at a stretch. Then something strange started happening. Some employees began complaining about pain that wouldn't go away. Worse, the pain seemed to be aggravated by using the computer.

"Bah, humbug!" sneered their managers (and peers), counting up their stock options. "These people are whiners and slackers."

How wrong they were. Repetitive stress injuries, including tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and even Blackberry Thumb are now accepted and frequently treated workplace problems.

The cause? Repetition. It turns out we weren't meant to perform the same actions over and over again. Our bodies, like our minds, crave variety. Repeat the same motion too many times (such as moving your wrist side-to-side while using a mouse), and your body can react with inflamed muscles, compromised joint health, and constant pain.

Your Best Defense: Fortunately, protecting yourself against repetitive stress injuries is as simple as sitting the right way, taking breaks, and stretching.

Health professionals are unanimous in saying you must take a break from computing. Some say every half hour, some say every hour. Pick the one that's most compatible with your work style and stick with it. Stand up, stretch, and walk around. Deliver in person a message you might have ordinarily e-mailed. Work at home? Walk to the mailbox and back.

Try some exercises and stretches designed to target RSI trouble spots. I like the ones at My Daily Yoga's Web site.

And don't forget to use comfortable and ergonomically enhanced equipment such as ergonomic keyboards, trackball alternatives, and adjustable chairs. For some examples, see our overview of innovative input devices.

These are all preventative measures. If you're already experiencing pain or numbness in your fingers, hands, elbows, arms, or shoulders, seek medical help now.

2. Extra Weight

Desk jockeys beware. While a desk job might be the stuff blue-collar workers dream of, it's also a great way to pack on the pounds. The American Journal of Preventive Medicine reported in August, 2005, that a man who sits at a desk for six hours a day or more is more than twice as likely to be overweight than those with more active jobs.

That paunch packs a serious punch.

In case you've been trapped in a cave for the past 40 years, here's some news: Overweight people are at greater risk for heart disease, diabetes, stroke, hypertension, some cancers, and a litany of other health concerns. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports:

"During the past 20 years there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States. In 1985 only a few states were participating in CDC's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) and providing obesity data. In 1991, four states had obesity prevalence rates of 15-19 percent and no states had rates at or above 20 percent. In 2004, 7 states had obesity prevalence rates of 15-19 percent; 33 states had rates of 20-24 percent; and 9 states had rates more than 25 percent."

Your Best Defense: Move it. It can be as simple as wearing a pedometer and aiming for 10,000 steps a day. For those with serious weight control issues, the United States Department of Agriculture recommends an average daily amount of exercise equal to one and a half hours.

While that may seem exhausting, take heart. Everything you do counts toward that goal. Take the stairs, take a ten-minute walk during lunch, rake leaves, walk the dog. Keep a diary of your activity level for two weeks and adjust accordingly.

Dieting can aid in your goal to stay trim, but dieting without exercise is proving to be a short-term solution only.

3. Laptop-Induced Shoulder And Back Injuries

Laptops are the devil. They cause cramped finger positioning while keying, the pointer control options are awkward, their position on your lap can induce a crooked neck, and their portability means you're always on call. But did you know "Laptop Shoulder" may be the new "Blackberry Thumb"?

A laptop computer can weigh quite a bit on its own — anywhere from four to ten pounds. Add in the AC adaptor, several printed reports, a cell phone, a PDA, keys, business cards, etc. — and before you know it, your portable computer isn't so portable. Nevertheless, we sling them on our collective shoulders and take off where work demands.

That's bad news for your shoulder and back. Picture yourself in the airport security line: two hours with 20 pounds of pressure bearing down on your right shoulder. What you think may be tension is in fact an injured muscle.

And let's not forget the wrenching movements we make when slinging our laptop bags over our shoulders. We underestimate the weight and the risk.

Your Best Defense: Lift slowly and carefully when picking up your laptop. Consider a notebook backpack, which distributes the weight evenly between both shoulders, or invest in a rolling laptop carrier. Finally, when rolling, push your laptop (and your luggage) in front of you instead of dragging it behind. You're in better control that way and less likely to injure yourself.

4. Eyestrain

Once, in the heat of battle during an online game of Quake, I went so long without blinking that my contact lens became stuck to my cornea. Not pleasant.

As it turns out, it's not such an unusual thing. When we concentrate intently on what is on our computer monitor, we blink less, reducing the natural lubrication in our eyes.

Further, staring at a computer monitor is in itself a challenge. Although what we see on the screen may appear to be constant, it isn't. Each monitor has a refresh rate that continually updates the image. While this update appears seamless, it isn't — and your eyes know that. They register this flicker, and that's a major contributor to eyestrain for those spending long hours on the screen. Don't think your fancier LCD screen will eliminate the problem, either. Both LCD and CRT monitors have refresh rates.

What's more, your eyes aren't designed to focus on something two feet away from you for hours at a time. Our eyes perform best looking at things 20 feet away or more. To look at something closer, your eyes turn inward and your pupil constricts. This puts strain on your eye muscles and cranial nerves, which can result in symptoms ranging from sore, itchy eyes to blurred vision to increased sensitivity to light. While these symptoms often disappear with rest, double vision while driving home in afternoon traffic is a seriously dangerous situation.

Your Best Defense: For every hour spent on your computer, take a five-minute eye break. Look out a window and focus on something far away. Walk around and give your eyes a chance to rest.

Make a conscious effort to blink. If you find you're still troubled with dry eyes, try moisturizing drops. One caveat: Look for drops that are made for moisturizing, not for getting rid of redness.

See OhioHealth and Quick Online Tips for more computer eyestrain reducing tips.

If you follow these steps and still experience ongoing pain, difficulty focusing, or any other problems with your eyes, see an optometrist.

5. Poor Circulation

E-mail, e-commerce, e-zines, and now e-thrombosis.

It sounds scary because it is. Deep-vein thrombosis (DVT) — blood clots forming in the legs and then moving to the lungs — is the condition that scared the e-tickets out of air travelers a few years ago.

The bad news is that it can happen to computer users. The good news is that it doesn't happen that often.

In 2003, the European Respiratory Journal reported a case in which a young New Zealander had developed DVT after sitting at his computer for more than 18 hours a day. That's a long stretch, but not unimaginable.

Your Best Defense: Again, step away from your computer. Stretch your legs, flex your ankles. If you feel soreness or tightness in your legs, do some light exercises to get the blood flowing.

YogaEverywhere has, as you might suspect, yoga exercises you can do everywhere — including specific exercises for your feet and legs.

6. Back And Neck Damage From Bad Posture

We must place the blame for our aching necks and backs squarely on our own shoulders. In short, we slouch. Too many of us literally hunker down at our computer, arching our backs and either lowering or raising our chins to see the monitor. If you've ever typed while your elbows resting on your thighs, you're doing yourself a disservice.

First the neck: If you look either down or up to view your monitor, you're putting an unnatural strain on your cervical spine for long periods of time. That leads to inflammation and possible permanent injury.

Now your back: Slumping over your keyboard or crouching down means you're crunching your back. Between your vertebrae are discs that act as cushions or shock absorbers, keeping the vertebrae from rubbing together and preventing nerves from being squeezed in the process. Too much pressure for too long can cause these discs to slip out of place, and that means pain — serious, get-me-to-the-doctor-right-now pain. Less serious injuries can be caused by pulled muscles.

Your Best Defense: Posture, posture, posture. Sit erect while at your computer. Pretend to be balancing a book on your head.

Your workspace is as important to your efficiency as which processor you use. Keep your monitor high enough so that you don't lower your head to view the screen. And invest (or persuade your boss to invest) in ergonomically correct furniture — the expense today will save medical bills tomorrow.

Stand and stretch when possible. Here are some more everyday, anywhere yoga exercises from My Daily Yoga.

Finally, listen to your body. Tension you feel in your back or neck may not be caused by emotional stress from your job. It may be a simple matter of readjusting your work position.

7. Headaches And Migraines

Headaches and migraines are the phantom symptoms of computer use.

Some speculate that migraine sufferers are more sensitive to the refresh rate of monitors, making them more vulnerable. Others speculate that it is the stress of spending long hours on the computer, not the computer use itself, that's at fault. Still others say computer users are experiencing eyestrain and calling it a headache. Whatever the cause, the fact remains that computing can deliver a serious kick to the head.

Your Best Defense: Break it up. Drag your eyes away from the monitor. Stay alert for the beginning signs of a headache. If you develop a twinge, best to nip it in the bud by walking away from your workstation. You might also to use this time to tackle other tasks, such as returning phone calls or filing, to reduce the tension.

Also keep in mind the last time you ate, drank fluids, or had caffeine. Not all headaches are caused by computers, and recognizing your triggers is something only you can do.

8. Insomnia

It's often difficult to unwind after work. Working at a computer may make it doubly so.

The University of Maryland Medical Center cites excessive computer use as a cause of insomnia. It's not because you're chomping on the bit to get back to the report that's due. It's a little more complex. A Japanese study found that performing exciting tasks on computers with bright monitors at night reduces the concentration of melatonin and influences the human biological clock, interfering with sleep.

Your Best Defense: Limit the amount of time you spend in front of your computer late at night. You may be better off waking up early to put in those extra hours as opposed to burning the midnight oil.

9. Internet Addiction And Other Risky Behaviors

Increasingly, physicians and health workers are treating patients who say they feel compelled to be online all the time — e-mailing, instant messaging, shopping, in chat rooms, playing video games, whatever — often to the detriment of work, school, and family life.

The popular term for this condition is Internet addiction; however, many health professionals are skeptical that the desire to be online is a true physiological addiction. Indeed, the American Psychiatric Association does not recognize Internet addiction as a medical condition.

Whether it's technically an addiction or not, however, there's no denying that spending excessive amounts of time online can have serious repercussions on a person's life. What's more, the Internet can be used to feed other addictions — sex, gambling, even shopping, in some cases leading to lost jobs, wrecked relationships, and drained bank accounts. If addiction needs fuel, think of your Internet connection as the closest gas station.

We may think of excessive computer use as a problem only in the technology-obsessed United States, but it's not. In March of this year, a government-sponsored center for Internet addictions was opened in Beijing, China, aimed at helping Internet abusers regain balance in their lives. One person receiving treatment reported spending 24-hour stretches in front of his computer. The result: treatments that include counseling and electroshock therapy.

Your Best Defense: Here's where we step away from the keyboard. If spending time on your computer begins to negatively affect your job, your interpersonal relationships, your sleep, or your financial stability, you might be in trouble. 

10. Environmental Impact

Enough of the direct-to-the-consumer harm. Did you know that feeding your computer jones can damage the planet? Our yearning for bleeding-edge toys has us throwing out hard drives, cell phones, and PDAs the minute something flashier rears its head. While we may take delight in being on the cutting edge of technology, the planet is suffering from the digital detritus.

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition bills itself as a "diverse grassroots coalition that engages in research, advocacy, and organizing around the environmental and human health problems caused by the rapid growth of the high-tech electronics industry." Its findings aren't encouraging.

Computers contain heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium. When these computers become outdated, they end up in landfills, poisoning the ground and our groundwater. Despite the efforts of environmental organizations, less than 10 percent of computers are recycled, and of those that are, only a fraction are recycled safely.

What's more, you may literally not see the problem. Greenpeace International reports:

"E-waste is routinely exported by developed countries to developing ones, often in violation of the international law. Inspections of 18 European seaports in 2005 found as much as 47 percent of waste destined for export, including e-waste, was illegal. In the UK alone, at least 23,000 metric tonnes of undeclared or 'grey' market electronic waste was illegally shipped in 2003 to the Far East, India, Africa and China. In the US, it is estimated that 50-80 percent of the waste collected for recycling is being exported in this way."

Your Best Defense: Take responsibility for your own computer materials and make sure they land safely when you're finished with them. Trashing them isn't the only option. Contact local charities to see if they have a place for a slightly outdated computer. Post a sign in your neighborhood to see if anyone wants it, or advertise it as a freebie on Craig's List. You may have moved on, but not everyone has.

No luck? Don't try to discard your computer yourself. Get some professional help. Dial 1-800-CLEANUP for state-specific information on how to safely discard your computer equipment. You can also visit the Earth 911 Web site for tips.

For example, after inputting my zip code at Earth 911, I was given four locations, all within a ten-mile drive from my home, that accept discarded computers. Two of them charge a small fee for accepting monitors, but it's money well spent.

If you're extra-dedicated, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition offers a list of U.S. recyclers who have signed the Electronic Recycler's Pledge of True Stewardship.

Important: Whether you donate, recycle, or dispose of your computer, be sure to safely remove personal data from your equipment first. See Data Disposal: A Crushing Problem? for tips.