The horrors of computer posture . . .
The other day, when I was coming back to Australia from Heathrow, I came up behind a line of bodies sitting slumped on high stools, like a row of birds tucked up on a bough. Each was plugged in and staring at a computer screen. I had come upon the rear view of an Internet café and it struck me again how incredibly badly humans sit when using computers. It also graphically illustrated why we're now seeing almost as many upper as lower end spinal problems.
Apart from sitting for too long, compressing the base of the spine and making brittle, several other factors make for trouble with computers. This is particularly so with generations of children now using computers from an early age. Prolonged computer postures are highly significant for children with spinal scoliosis which comes to the fore during adolescent growth spurts. Here the bowing and buckling of the spine into a windswept 'S' bend is greatly speeded up by the inactivity of sitting.
The strains of being stooped over a computer relate mainly to the chair-desk-keyboard–screen configuration, all of which must be perfect if you want to minimise strain and pain. The long hours of sitting scrunched with the entire body focused on the activity of one tiny cursor is unnatural. And in the last half decade people like me have been inundated by new strains coming through.
A lot of the upper body problems relate to the keyboard and the mouse. Most keyboards are too high, especially in home set-ups that are more likely to be ad hoc. A keyboard is rather like a piano, with the upper limbs suspended by the neck and shoulder girdle (concert pianists often have chronic neck-shoulder problems). Unlike writing, where the forearms are supported, a keyboard requires you to keep arms up and poised, fingers hovering over the keys. If the keyboard is too high you have to hitch up your shoulders to get the hands higher creating pain in the neck angle and shoulders. This is a a typically tired and twinging pain that makes you want to arch your neck and pummel the muscles with your fingers for relief.
The ideal ergonomic computer chair is an adjustable-height kneeling chair. Some people don’t like them because they are without back support, but this is part of their value; they make you do more. The more active, reefed-in tummy control stops your spine pile-driving down into its base. The seat-slanted-forward kneeling arrangement makes you take less weight though your sitting bones and more through your upper shins, through the upholstered lower pad. It also puts your spine into a perfect lumbar hollow, with an optimal ‘S’ bend throughout its length, instead of a ‘C’ shaped one like the birds on the bough in the Internet shop.
The Balans chair was the prototype kneeling chair. The one below has the the advantage of having a rocker base to give you more movement, thus making your sitting more dynamic. All the better kneeling chairs have adjustable heights for the support pads, making them more accommodating for the knees (the matter of scrunching knees being the only problem with these chairs).
Note that I don't recommend these chairs if you're IN PAIN. They are a great way to stop you ever getting pain - by subtly making your tummy work harder and load-sharing between legs and sitting bones - and every school should have them! But if your spinal extensor muscles are already in alarm, this type of chair will make them more over-active and can often make your back pain worse. Best to get your spine moving again and the muscles behaving properly before you start. This means a spinal decompression 'pressure change therapy' regime which includes lower abdominals strengthening exercises.
If you don’t need to watch the key strokes you may be more comfortable taking the keyboard into your lap, which lets you work with your arms and shoulders completely down. But nothing can fix the mouse problem, not even a good chair. Using a mouse requires you keeping your wrist cocked back for long periods, which inevitably brings on wrist and forearm pains. This can be partially ameliorated by using keystrokes wherever you can, instead of the mouse, or using the mouse in the other hand. But the whole mouse arrangement is long overdue for an overhaul. A larger-acting device, used by the both arms (rather like a helicopter’s joystick) might be better because it would invoke a larger body action and avoid the one-sided, minutely accurate workings of one digit at the end of a rigidly poised upper limb. (Better still, get rid of it.)
Text on the screen should be at eye height, so you don't have to look down. Having adjusted your chair height, you often have to raise your screen too, so you are looking straight ahead instead of stooping and peering into the screen. This may mean putting the computer tower on its side and setting the screen on top, but you may also have to pull the screen towards you or away from you to put it at your exact focal length.
With more of us spending more time on computers, and children from a very young age using them for school work and for recreation (rue the day), it seems to me but a small fraction of the time spent designing software needs to be put to re designing the macro-hardware, so we can all have an easier time using computers - with impunity into the future. Even with computer age is in its infancy the troubles we are accruing are legion. Most of us are feeling them already, and every day!
You can watch this video to see Sarah explain how to do your best to undo the ill-effects of sustained computer postures
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