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Monday, June 18, 2001
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Take the pain out of computing

Using computers is fun and they help us in so many ways. Too much of anything is, however, not a good thing and we can have various kinds of health problems unless we are careful, says Kuljit Bains

ILLUSTRATION BY SANDEEP JOSHICOMPUTERS can do amazing things at the touch or click of a button, bringing you power, convenience and control. But the exercise of this very power could make you lose control over your own body or, in extreme cases, even cripple it. What are we talking of? Bodily damage caused by spending time at a computer terminal that could turn out to be so nasty as to make it difficult or impossible for you to use parts of your body.

All computer-based workers face this job hazard, especially those who spend long hours in front of the intelligent yet dumb boxes. While some of us have exaggerated fears of how we could lose our eyesight or be microwaved by the radiations from the monitor, there are certain justified concerns, too, and being aware of them is solving half the problem. Most of the problems arise from improper ways of working with the machines or simply overuse of the body vis-a-vis work content and schedule.

As with TV or other gadgets, computers have also been through their stages. Initially, everybody was simply overwhelmed by the technology. Then came a stage when large numbers started using it and consequently became aware of the pitfalls and fallouts, leading to heightened fears, more like the fear of the unknown. Today, fortunately, people are coming to accept that though there are certain harmful effects of computer use, most of them can be avoided. This has come about as a result of a lot of research into the said harmful effects, education of computer users, and the sheer advances in technology that have reduced or eliminated the negative aspects.

Computer users that face the highest risk are those who have long uninterrupted hours of work in front of a terminal and are not provided proper work environment. Medical transcription staff or data-entry operators are typically the kind of workers who are at risk of computer related injuries. Even non-working categories like students who spend too much time browsing the Net may face this risk as they may not care about the kind of facilities they create to use their computer terminal at home.

To avoid all the possible problems we just need to be conscious of our work conditions and go according to the basic principles of ergonomics (a study of the conditions in which people work most effectively with machines).


Repetitive strain injury

The most significant problem in working with computers is that you do the same repetitive physical actions over a long period, leading to stress and strain at the same points in your body. However mild these strains might seem at first, simply by persisting over long periods they can lead to serious injuries.

While you work on a terminal, virtually your entire body plays a role. Starting with fingers and wrists, it includes eyes, shoulders, neck, back, and even legs. Different types of strain can lead to different medical conditions in your musculo-skeletal system that consists of muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, bones, cartilage and discs in the spine.

Carpal tunnel syndrome: This is a condition of the wrist—the part that comes first in the line of trouble. In this the wrists and hands get painful. In the initial stages, this pain gets relief from rest, but as the problem progresses, the pain may come to stay. This problem arises from using the keyboard for long periods with the wrists bent at an angle, either upward or downward.

The bending of the wrist puts pressure on the median nerve that runs from the shoulder down the arm and to the hand. Tendons of the fingers, blood vessels, and the median nerve pass through what is called the carpal tunnel in the wrist. This tunnel is formed by carpal ligament in the wrist. As you flex your hand or fingers the tendons rub against the walls of the tunnel. This rubbing can lead to irritation and pain in extreme conditions. However, rest of even a few seconds or minutes from using the keyboard every now and then can be sufficient for recovery. If the pain persists, complete rest is required and a doctor must be consulted. Also, remember to tell the doctor exactly how much time you spend on the keyboard. It may also be noted that while this is said to be one of the most feared of computer-related problems, a recent research has statistically found no more incidence of this syndrome among computer users than the rest of the population. But then, precaution doesn’t cost anything.

Tendon disorders: Tendinitis is the pain that results in the tendons in the fingers or arms as a result of over or awkward use. Tendons are like chords that join muscles to bones and are liable to get frayed or torn. The tendons in fingers are covered by a sheath that is filled with a fluid that lubricates the sliding of the tendons. When the fingers are overused, too much fluid is produced, leading to swelling of the sheath and, consequently, pain. Again, breaks are the answer, apart from workstation design that we will discuss later. In some cases, the sheaths may get constricted when the tendons get rough. One extreme condition is ganglionic cysts that form at the back of wrists due to excessive build-up of fluid in the sheaths.

Back and neck problems: These are a result of constant pressure being maintained on certain parts of the neck or back. When you sit in an awkward position fixed for a long period the muscles concerned come under unacceptable strain, causing fatigue. The damage from this could also be permanent if care is not taken to remedy the causal factors in the beginning itself. Correct position and support to the back from chair are very important. Regular exercise of the back and legs while you are still fit can also help prevent this as your own muscles would be in a better position to support the skeletal system.

As the term RSI (repetitive strain injury) suggests, the problem arises from repetition of a particular stressful action over a long period. Thus, to a great extent, you can solve the problem by simply ensuring that your manner of working is not stressful on the body and the hours are not long. If the hours have to be long, make sure you take short breaks every hour or so. Take a walk or stretch your limbs and hands. If even that is not possible, then in between do things that do not involve the computer.

The best way is to design your workstation and schedule in a manner that that you are able to avoid all this strain. This is discussed in detail in the ‘workstation’ section.


The best way to ensure all your body is free of unnatural strain is to sit at your desk in a proper posture. What is this posture? That in which your body would want to be if let to itself, i.e., the neutral position. More unflexed the muscles, the better it would be. This may require you to adjust or change your furniture and hardware according to your body comfort and size. Though that may involve some expense, it would be worth it.





Hands and arms come into contact with the machine the first, and the most. While typing, make sure your wrists are straight. They should bend outwards as less as possible. This you can ensure by keeping the elbows close to the body. There should also be no upward or downward bending of the wrists. For that you need to keep your elbow at the same height as the keyboard and ensure that the forearm is parallel to the ground.

Your back should be straight, i.e., bent only along the natural curve. You should not have to lean forward for anything and the hands should be able to reach the keyboard without bending. The natural curve of the lower back should be supported by the back of the chair.

In an ideal situation, your feet would be flat on the floor, the thighs parallel to the ground, the angle between your thighs and back would be 90°, the back straight, the head bent downward, though only slightly, upper arms would fall comfortably along the body, the shoulders would not be raised, the elbows bent at 90°, the forearms parallel to the ground, and finally, the wrists would be straight.

To achieve this, you may change the height of the chair or table, the position of the monitor, use a footrest, all depending on your height.

By maintaining the correct posture, you would be able to avoid repetitive strain (as in the wrists, by keeping them straight) as well as constant strains (as of the back or shoulders, by keeping them relaxed). Change in your position every now and then is, however, essential in any case to give rest to specific muscle groups.

Eye and vision

One of the most common complaints of people working with monitors is problem with eyes or vision. The complaints include strain, burning sensation, reddening, blurred vision, dryness, headaches, worsening of existing vision problems, etc. Before taking up the reasons for these, it would be important to take up what are not the reasons as there are a lot of misconceptions. The light from the monitor itself does not affect the eyes in any way. Also, eyesight is not reduced permanently as a result of looking at the monitor.

Most of the problems are a result of fatigue caused due to a combination of factors. As the eye is constantly focussed at a fixed distance on the monitor for long periods, its muscles do not get sufficient exercise and, as a result, over a period may become weak. This may lead to weakening of eyesight. Also, keeping constantly focussed at a particular point leads to fatigue. A very common thing that happens when you are concentrating on the monitor is that you forget to blink as often as required. Blinking is the body’s way of keeping the sensitive tissue of the eye moist and clean. When you don’t blink often enough, the eye becomes dry and can become itchy. In extreme cases, problems like conjunctivitis may also develop. Using artificial tears may help.

There are also other factors that lead to undue eye fatigue. Several old models of monitors do not have clearly formed characters on them. Such monitors are particularly found with data entry operators, and they are the ones who are particularly vulnerable as they work long hours. In such cases, using larger characters and clearer fonts could help. Also, some monitors have flickering on the screen—these should be avoided. To some degree, this can be improved by adjusting the refresh rate of the monitor. The image formed on the screen should also be stable and distortion free as all these things add to eye fatigue, as you have to concentrate more to make out what is there on the screen.

Ensure there is no light falling on the monitor from behind you as this causes a glare due reflection on the monitor, which again causes fatigue. In any case, do visit an eye specialist every six months for a general check-up of the eye.


The monitor, or the visual display unit, is the most visible part of the computer and thus also the most blamed. The only heartening thing is that while earlier monitors did have certain objectionable characteristics, most new monitors produced by reputed companies have removed those deficiencies through either improvement in technology or from fear of damage suits.

Earlier monitors had significant electro magnetic and electrostatic fields around them. There was a lot of debate about the harmful effects of these, but it was never conclusive. The fears ranged from skin rashes to cancer to abortion. However, today most monitors conform to newer stringent international safety standards, though you may want to confirm that before you buy one. But the fears are still there to a great extent. To avoid any problem, just in case, you may follow a few points. Keep the monitor at an arms’ length. That helps as the radiations fall drastically with distance. Remember that the fields are stronger at the back and on the sides of monitors, so maintain a distance of three feet from the back of any monitor that may be there around you in the office. Keep the screen wiped clean as dust tends to stick on it, particularly on the older models that have a stronger electrostatic field around them.


Computers have made man believe that virtually impossible things can now become possible. This at times leads to unreasonable expectations of employers from workers. It has been seen that a typical computer operator’s job becomes very monotonous, lasts long hours, and he has no decision-making role in offices. This leads to low self-esteem and depression. Such conditions, combined with poor work environment, including the workstation, can causes problems that have a psychological basis, like headaches, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, depression, backache, ulcers, high blood pressure, or even heart disease, if the condition lasts for years.

Employers would do good to spend some money on the work condition of employees as that could get them better efficiency, for the simple reason that a healthier worker can do more.


All hazards discussed above can mostly be avoided altogether if we take care to set up the workstation in a manner that is conducive to stress-free working. The term workstation refers to the design and layout of the furniture and related paraphernalia you use while working on the computer as well as the immediate surroundings. Just work out their relative positioning in accordance with ergonomic principles and all should be fine.

Work desk: The desk should be sufficiently large to conveniently place all your work-related material. The surface should be non-reflective to avoid glare. While a typical height would be around 29 inches, it could vary according to an individual’s own size. Thus, it would be preferable to have an adjustable desk, though that means extra cost.

Chair: Ideally, the chair height would be adjustable with the aim of fixing a height such that the thigh of the worker is parallel to the ground and the feet rest flat on the floor. While the seat of the chair may or may not be adjustable, the height and tilt of the back should be adjustable—the idea being that proper support to the back is given, particularly the lower back.

Footrest: In case the height of the desk and chair are not very correct, a footrest may help you achieve the desired position of your limbs.

Monitor: First try and get the latest model of a reputed company that you can. These come with high safety standards as far as radiations are concerned. The image should be sharp and flicker free and the brightness and contrast should be adjustable. Place the monitor at a height such that the top of the monitor is at level or just below your eye. If necessary, remove the PC from beneath it and place it on a side. Also, it should be directly in front of you and not to a side. The tilt and angle of the monitor should also be adjustable.

Keyboard: Should be as thin as possible so that you do not have to bend your wrists. It should also be free to move so that its position can be adjusted to suit you. The keys should be clearly legible and give a distinct feel when pressed. However, they should not bottom out harshly when pressed—the shock could be damaging.

Ambience: The room should be brightly lit so that there is not a strong contrast between the monitor and the surroundings. Make sure the light is diffused and not from you. Ideally, the light point should be from the sides, neither directly in your eyes, nor straight on the monitor. The temperature, humidity, and noise level have all to be in control. At times, in air-conditioned places the humidity tends to get very low—ideally it should be around 50 per cent and the temperature maintained at whatever is comfortable to workers. Noise level in workplaces also at times become too much. Things like telephones and printers could be moved around to make adjustments.

Software: This, surprisingly, also has to be ergonomic in that it should be ideally suited to the task at hand. Workers should not have to make do with whatever software they have. It should also be according to the worker’s capability.

Work organisation: First of all, there should be only as much work as a worker can reasonably do. Electronic supervision of output should not be without the workers knowledge. Include some non-computer chores to give a break from keyboard work. If that is not possible give a few minutes break every hour.

Modern machines can perform flawlessly for hours on end. Unfortunately, the operators behind them are only human. Keep that in mind and work shall go on smoothly.