Why Extended Computer Work Causes Back Pain and What to Do About It

SAN RAMON, CA – You are sitting at your desk, typing away as usual. You notice pain in your neck, shoulders, wrists and hands developing. You shake your hands and stretch your neck, and continue with your routine. Weeks go by, and all of a sudden you notice that the pain does not go away like it did before. Why is this happening?

Simply put, the human body is not designed to be sitting sedentary in front of a computer terminal. There are over 200 joint surfaces that make up your spine; all of which need to be moving frequently in order to stay healthy. With intense computer work, this is difficult to do. Since computers have permeated everyday life at the same level as watching TV, the issue of pain is of major concern.

Computer work sets the stage for repetitive strain injuries, or RSIs. RSIs are "overuse" injuries that result in microtears to ligaments, tendons, fascia (tissue covering muscle), and in some cases, nerves. RSIs include tendonitis, epicondylitis (elbow), tenosynovitis (tendon that extends the thumb), and carpal tunnel syndrome (wrist and hand).

The first mistake an RSI victim makes is having her keyboard and mouse too high. And, a distance as small as an inch can mean too high. This will cause one to subconscious contract the upper trapezius and neck muscles in order to raise the arms and hands over the keyboard. Over time, this contraction can lead to strain.

The second mistake is not keeping the wrists straight. Many people bend their wrists when typing; these teters the median nerve and may lead to carpal tunnel syndrome.

The third mistake is reaching forward to type. It's best to keep the upper arm in line with your torso. Reaching forward requires contraction of the upper shoulder and deltoid muscles; they will start to fatigue more quickly in this position.

The fourth mistake is not taking enough mini-breaks. Every 10-15 minutes, stop for a minute and stretch your wrists to get blood flowing.

A "stealth" cause of neck and shoulder pain is monitor glare. Monitor glare causes vision fatigue, which causes you to subconsciously bring your head closer to the monitor so that you can see better. When the center of gravity of the head (a 10-12 lb. weight) moves forward of the spine, a lever-arm is created. This means that a force is generated at the back of your neck and upper spine to counteract the weight of the head. Over time, it leads to neck stiffness and tension headaches.

In summary, make sure to keep your keyboard and mouse low enough that you do not have to lift your shoulder in order to type. This will require an adjustable keyboard tray. Keep your upper arm in line with your torso, and your elbows 90-110 degrees. Wrists straight. Angle your chair back about 5 degrees to take some pressure off your low back.

Keep your head up so that your ears are directly over your shoulders. Look away from your monitor and focus on an object at least 20 feet away to prevent lens fatigue.

For some people, it's too late to fix the problem by making corrective ergonomic adjustments. In this case, consider chiropractic treatment. Chiropractic can help by repositioning your skull directly over your spelling to reduce the lever-arm; theby reducing neck and shoulder muscle contractions. Adjustments are done using a special table called a Drop Table that moves the lower cervical and upper thoracic vertebrae forward, and the head backwards. The end result is better posture and less muscle strain. Additionally, chiropractic adjustments to the collar bone, shoulder blade, ribcage, elbow and wrist joints can help remove restrictions and allow better movement.

Dr. Dan Perez, DC

San Ramon Chiropractor