Self-Care Strategies for Avoiding Repetitive Strain:
Are you fit for the Information Age? Operating today's office technology requires marathon fitness. It's a test of endurance - not of how far you can run, but how long you can sit. Sitting for long hours with intense visual and mental concentration on a two-dimensional screen as your fingers perform rapid alternating movements, constitutes a normal physical demand for today's work.
The human body was built to move; Subject it to prolonged static work at a computer, and you have the largest number of work-related and stress-induced injuries in recorded history. "Repetitive strain injuries," "Carpal Tunnel Syndrome," "Cumulative Trauma Disorders": These names have become household words, casually mentioned as if they were unavoidable occupational hazards of the IT revolution.
Ironically, the advent of computers has brought little reprieve from workloads or more healthy working environments; Instead, work-related injuries and illnesses are rising at a catastrophic rate. These injuries rose from 23,000 in 1976 to over 300,000 computer-related injuries in 1994, according to OSHA statistics (www.osha.gov). Ergonomics has become the standard for both prevention and treatment of these problems.
The blame has been placed primarily on factors inherent in the workstation design that contribute to tissue microtrauma (wear and tear). While ergonomically designed furniture has helped eliminate these detrimental factors in the work environment, the rate for musculoskeletal injuries is still in the hundreds of thousands.
The challenge lies in understanding how to improve the relationship between human design and environmental design -- how the dynamic, moving person can become more comfortable working at a static and repetitious task. While ergonomics addresses the mechanical laws of the work environment, what "user's manual" effectively addresses human use? Something is being omitted in this equation of furniture design and human design.
Mechanics alone cannot account for the flexibility, adaptability, and freedom of movement needed to keep a lively interface between a dynamically moving human and the static computer workstation. While common sense and safety guidelines are certainly warranted (e.g., take frequent breaks, stretch often), they, too, are not the full answer.
Rather than chiefly addressing the work environment, it would be useful to look at how self-imposed stress plays a large role in injury occurrence. Instead of considering the computer operator the victim of technological progress ("What is wrong with my workstation?"), people can take a more proactive approach ("How am I using myself at my workstation?")
One missing factor is the way a person reacts to the stresses of computer use. What are each person's behavioral responses to the task of prolonged sitting and concentrating while typing? It's not that we need to pay more attention to optimizing the workstation design, or do more stretching exercises. Rather, workstation design and common sense need to be accompanied by active sensing - ongoing subtle awareness of one's stress reactions during the act of computing.
One way this is easily possible to do is by using a method of mind-body training called The Alexander Technique. The Alexander Technique is one of the West's oldest mind-body approaches (over 100 years old), and is a method with a reliable track record in helping reduce stress-related injuries that stem from inappropriate or excessive application of muscular force. Developed by F.M. Alexander, a Shakespearean actor (1969-1955), the Alexander Technique helps people meet the stresses of any activity adaptively and flexibly.
Of all the mind-body disciplines currently in vogue today, the Alexander Technique is particularly attractive and distinctive because it can be applied immediately, while a person is working. It requires no program of conditioning exercises, no series of specialized postures, no quiet meditation that removes you from activity; Instead, you learn to be more aware of yourself in activity, as you work, and to retrain interfering movement habits while you work.
The Alexander Technique precisely addresses how a person habitually responds to stressful situations. Sensory adaptation to a static environment lends itself to poor posture and movement habits: poor head balance, a collapsed or rigidly-held torso, wrists dropped on wrist rests, awkward wrist and hand positions, and inappropriate force application through the fingers. Trying to maintain "good posture," usually an immobile concept of perfect action, is impossible.
Instead of "good posture" we need poise and dynamic tension that keeps us lively, pleasantly alert, and ready for action. The Alexander Technique offers you a possibility of letting go of harmful tension patterns and rigidly held postures that interfere with your ability to compute with comfort. It helps you transform stress into useful energy for work and maintain postural balance with ease. It helps build the body awareness in action, helping computer user keep their senses lively, refreshing the interface between finger and key, eye and screen.
The basic principles are not hard to learn and the benefits can be immediately applied. As a teacher of the Alexander Technique and a physical therapist, I call my customized training for office workers, Compute With Comfort. This program includes these objectives:
PhysicalTherapy.org is a service of Alexander Technique of Lincoln, Nebraska and Toronto, Canada and Life Bridge Coaching.