Students are an often overlooked at risk population for Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI). However, the combination of full or part-time work, keeping up with coursework and now, the addition of e-mail and the Internet/WWW has added to time on the computer. In fact, students often use computers as frequently as many workers do, sometimes under stressful conditions and for extended lengths of time. Few people are aware that our bodies are not suited to working on computers in a stationary position for hours at a time. Perhaps the gradual onset of RSI has something to do with this. We continue to campaign for more safety features in cars and airplanes, but hardly bother about the machines we interact with more frequently and which can be just as injurious.
Bad work habits and a poorly designed work environment can leave you just as injured as a car accident might. We tend to view computers as enabling devices, they let us do so much more than we would be possible otherwise. But we often forget that every tool has to be used properly or it can be harmful. Repeated keying, just like lifting even the lightest of weights over and over again, can injure your body permanently. Most people whose jobs involve lifting objects are trained to use the right posture while lifting. Hardly ever do we hear of such training given to computer users. There are many forms of RSI–Tendonitis, Carpal and Cubital Tunnel Syndrome, and trigger finger, to name just a few–and it is the fastest growing work-related health problem in this country. RSI when related to computer use is generally caused by a number of factors which can include, unhealthy work-station setup, bad keyboarding habits, posture, work flow factors and stress. Both lack of information and misinformation contribute to injuries. The use of computers over the past few years has grown exponentially, across the population. There are few health professionals knowledgeable enough to advise and treat patients suffering from RSI-related health problems. A general practitioner may be unaware of current techniques and recent advances in physical therapy and might recommend treatment which could compound your problems. What complicates things further is the fact that RSI-related health problems can affect your entire body, and are often difficult to diagnose.
Contrary to popular wisdom, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is not the only form of computer-related injury affecting computer users. In fact, there are numerous other ways in which you could injure your arms, hands, and indeed your entire body. Also called Cumulative Trauma Disorders (CTDs), these range from problems with eyesight, neck and back injuries, fatigue, insomnia and even digestive problems. Yet, some of the measures one can take to ensure a safer work environment are extremely easy to implement. For starters, one should always take frequent breaks. Small breaks every ten to fifteen minutes, used to perform simple exercises let the muscles and tendons relax and flex, reducing the strain placed on them by extended bouts at the computer. Placing your monitor and keyboard at a more natural height can help reduce the risk of RSI a great deal, as can evaluating and improving one’s posture. The temperature and climate conditions in the work area influence the body’s responses and can have a significant effect on one’s health. Taking small snacks and frequent sips of water can prevent dehydration and general discomfort.
What is most important, however, is that more of us recognize the risks associated with computer use. As little as an hour or two of working with a computer every day can cause injury if the environment is particularly unhealthy. Since RSI is gradual, it is often difficult to notice and diagnose in its early stages. More often than not, when one begins to notice pain and discomfort, it is too late for curative measures and you can only hope to prevent the further deterioration of your health. Preventive measures taken early on are really the only “cure” available to us today. Like almost everyone else, NYU students are using computers more than ever before. Consequently the health risks they face are as acute as those that threaten the well-being of any worker. Often, one finds students who use computers both at work and while studying. The end result is heightened risk, often in work environments one has no control over (computer labs, libraries etc.), where it is difficult to find or create a comfortable position and set-up. A set-up appropriate for a tall person can cause acute discomfort for someone who is short and has small hands, so it is important to have adjustable chairs and workstations when these are used by many people. Laptops, on the other hand, create problems for people with long fingers who find it uncomfortable to use the small keyboards. A portable computer generally means you will find yourself working on library tables, lounge chairs, park-benches, subway cars, etc., none of which were ever designed with computer users in mind. Many NYU students will be using laptops in all sorts of environments, without being aware of the impact this may have on their health.
The most important step you can take right now is to become informed about the health problems that may be caused by computer use.
With the health of the NYU community in mind, Computer Advocacy @ NYU is cosponsoring a conference entitled “How to Survive Your Computer: Staying Healthy at Work”. The major sponsors are the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) and the Mount Sinai-Irving J. Selikoff Center for Occupational And Environmental Medicine. The conference will be held at Loeb Student Center (566 LaGuardia Place) on Saturday, October 12, 1996; 8:30am – 4:30pm. There will be various workshops and talks by health professionals who treat patients suffering from RSI on a regular basis. Flyers for the conference, and registration material is available from the Information Center, 50 West 4th Street. More information about the workshop is available from Computer Advocacy’s homepage at http://www.nyu.edu/pages/advocacy/ or by calling NYCOSH at 212.627.3900
[originally published in the Washington Square News]