Much progress has been made in the past decade in addressing carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive stress injuries through the use of ergonomic keyboards and computer stands. But less focus has been given to correcting how people sit in front of their screens all day, according to Brian McKeon, M.D., chief medical officer for the Boston Celtics and an orthopedist at the Boston Sports & Shoulder Center. Poor posture, coupled with the natural process of losing bone density and flexibility as we age, sets up a perfect storm for a host of back, neck and shoulders problems, such as rotator cuff disease, McKeon says.
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And the increasing popularity of portable computers only compounds the problem, because "the design of laptops violates a basic ergonomic requirement for a computer, namely that the keyboard and screen [be] separated," according to the Cornell University Ergonomics Web, which recommends a host of posture-positive tips for laptop users.
Poor posture can lead as well to digestive problems such as indigestion and constipation, McKeon explains, as well as pulmonary disease as lungs become restricted, making it harder to breath. "Bad posture is something we don't take seriously -- most people don't see surgeons for these problems, and we just tend to neglect it," McKeon says. "If we treated posture aggressively from the outset, shoulder, elbow and hand injuries would dramatically decrease."
Without the proper ergonomic setup, deskbound workers like IT professionals run the risk of back and spine injuries, McKeon says. Problems can include anything from cervical radiculopathy (a compression of the nerve roots in the neck) and bursitis of the shoulder on down to pulled or strained muscles, ligaments and tendons in the lower back.
Ironically, the risk of injury is actually compounded when a mostly sedentary worker makes an attempt at exercise. "The desk jockey realizes they've got to exercise so they do things like play tennis or do pushups, but those don't do anything for exercising their back muscles," McKeon says. "They set themselves up for muscle imbalances and can sometimes make things worse."
More than 1 million people lose time from work each year due to musculoskeletal disorders, which can be easily avoided with proper attention to workplace ergonomics and with regular exercise that includes back-strengthening routines, according to "Musculoskeletal Disorders and the Workplace," a report published by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.