July 11, 2003 -- Rather than spending lots of money on an ergonomic work station, simply knowing how computer work affects the body may be the first step in avoiding repetitive strain injury.
A new study shows most computer users are unaware of the muscle tension and changes in breathing caused by intensive computer work, but they can be trained to recognize these warning signs and take steps to reduce their risk.
"Computing tasks often 'capture' people. They are often so totally wrapped up in their work that they are unaware of tension patterns until they experience discomfort," write researcher Erik Peper, PhD, director of the Institute for Holistic Healing Studies at San Francisco State University, and colleagues.
Discomfort or pain in the neck, back, arms, and hands or illness associated with computer use is commonly referred to as repetitive strain injury.
Computers Raise Tension
In their study, published in the Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, researchers hooked up 18 computer users to a monitoring system that measured their muscle tension and breathing rate while working at a computer.
The monitoring session confirmed a common tendency to elevate the shoulders and breathe faster when the computer users were engrossed in their work. Participants experienced heightened muscle tension in all the muscle groups, especially in the upper back opposite the hand using the computer mouse.
Researchers say increased muscle tension combined with minimal movement and rapid breathing can increase the risk of repetitive strain injury by limiting blood flow and slowing muscle regeneration.
In addition, the computer users often continued to work without taking breaks that would have relieved the additional tension and reduced the risk of developing repetitive strain injury.
Researchers say the participants had little to no awareness of their muscle tension when computing, which might explain why ergonomic changes along with rearranging a work station don't always reduce or prevent repetitive strain injury.
"Most participants were surprised that they had increased breathing rates and heightened muscle activity during the type-and-point test," say the researchers.
Relax and Take Breaks
In another experiment, researchers trained a group of computer users in muscle relaxation and breathing techniques and provided them with feedback about the changes in their body associated with keyboard and mouse use via electromyography, which measures electrical activity in the muscles.
After three training sessions and practice at home, the computer users reported significantly decreased symptoms compared with those who didn't receive the training. They were able to relax their neck and shoulders, breathe from their diaphragm rather than their chest, and took more frequent breaks.
Researchers say the study found the most valuable aspects of the training were:
- Visual feedback of the muscle and breathing patterns
- Learning to relax the neck and shoulders
- Practicing lower breathing during computer work
- Incorporating "microbreaks" and larger movement breaks
- Ergonomic and work style changes
By investing more in training that focuses on awareness and practicing interventions like breaks and stretches that computer users can do while at work, researchers say employers could have healthier workers.
"Currently corporations, educational institutions, and private individuals spend billions of dollars on hardware and software and how to operate both. Yet, little or nothing is spent on 'bodyware,' which is the skill necessary to use oneself correctly and efficiently at the computer while maintaining health," they conclude.