The Relentless Pursuit of Ergonomics
It was about 10 years ago when I noticed a silly little pain emanating from my right thumb. At the time I had a tracker ball mouse where you used your thumb to roll the ball around. I’d had it for a good solid year. I ignored that small pain and a couple months later and much to my dismay, my thumb joint (the proximal interphalangeal joint, to be exact) tripled in size. The lightest whoosh of air traveling over the surface of that joint made me want to scream. I tried all the usual things that are supposed to take down swelling in joints and after two days of not even being able to sleep because of the uniquely excruciating pain, I headed off to my acupuncturist to see if there was anything he could do. He sent me home with a bottle of Chinese liniment and instructions to soak gauze with it and then wrap it around the painful joint 2x a day until the swelling went down. It turned my thumb a nice shade of yellow but it worked within 2 days. The swelling went down, the pain went away, and I threw the tracker ball mouse in the trash. However, that thumb joint was never quite the same after this incident.
I eventually settled on Apple’s Magic Mouse. The low profile definitely made it more ergonomic, however, my other thumb joint (the metacarpophalangeal joint) has more recently joined its buddy in protest. At least I didn’t ignore the pain this time but it’s a much more long-term, crappy type of pain like bursitis or tendonitis or arthritis (whatever it is, I’m pretty sure it ends in “itis”). So basically, my thumb is permanently screwed by my career of being a designer and logging many, many hours on the web.
While the aforementioned initial thumb incident was the first one that really made me pause for a second and wonder just what other damage I was doing to myself sitting for long hours in front of the computer, I had also dealt with on-going back problems.
I was racking up a nice little bill with the chiropractor every month my back would go “out”. Even my chiropractor explained that it wasn’t my spine that was the problem, it was the muscles around it. Sitting in an office chair for hours on end was the real culprit. He gave me some core strengthening exercises to do, which I promptly found I was “too busy” to remember to do, and instead I went out and bought an $800 ergonomic office chair. This was about 8 years ago. The chair did help a bit and I will say it’s a pretty high quality chair (I’ve still got it and am sitting in it right now), but it wasn’t until about 3 years later that I finally found that time to do those exercises and now about the only times I go to the chiropractor is when I’ve done something I shouldn’t have on a snowboard or went too gung ho pulling weeds in my yard.
Speaking of Sitting …
The back isn’t the only thing bothered by too much sitting. A few years ago I noticed more pain down the sides of my legs than ever before. Enter my new friend, Piriformis Syndrome. Turns out this little guy is also incredibly irritated by my sitting for hours every day. So, now I have to pay special attention to proper stretching for the Piriformis muscle and making sure I take regular breaks.
I still don’t buy into that whole, “sitting will kill you!” thing. I mean, I’m one of those people who are on the, “living will kill you” tip (basically, no matter what you do, something will kill you eventually), but I do like to minimize any unnecessary pain and I’m definitely not in a race to the finish line. I also saw a great article with more recent information on the sitting vs. standing thing that points out that a variation in activity as well as breaks and little bursts of exercises or activity throughout your day can be really beneficial. Oh, and I picked up doing Qi Gong about 3 years ago and that stuff rocks.
The Eyes Have It (But They’re Losing It Quickly)
A couple decades of computer eye strain. That’s pretty much where I’m at now. I’m pretty sure that while I most likely do have slow, general degeneration of my eyesight, the hours I’ve logged in front of a screen have also done a great job of impacting how well I see these days. You may not think eyesight is part of ergonomics, but it actually is. When working on the computer, you’re supposed to be looking away from the screen at something farther in the distance and basically resting your eyes for a few minutes about every 20. Guess what I hadn’t been doing all those years. Even now that I know about the eye break thing, by the end of the day my eyes are pretty shot. I basically just want to sit in the dark most evenings and read an actual paper book by candle light like some luddite or something.
Almost Perfect …
Around about the time I bought that expensive office chair, I bought these $40 desks at Ikea that actually hooked up. They were a great height, with a keyboard pull out, so I’ve managed to dodge the carpal tunnel syndrome bullet. Amazingly enough, they’ve held up pretty well over the years too (still using them in the office today). I’d tell you what their name is, but naturally, Ikea stopped making them. With my $800 chair, my core strengthening exercises, my Piriformis stretches, my Apple Magic Mouse, my thumb pain management, my $40 desk, my eye exercises, my breaks, my Qi Gong routine, and my 20" Apple Cinema monitor I was feeling pretty good about my ergonomics. And then I bought one of the new 27" Apple LED monitors.
Introduce One New Element, and Go Back to Square One
I’m not even going to talk about the screen glare issue with the LED Apple monitors (because I could write a whole other story just on that) but the fact they do not make these things adjustable in height just makes me want to go up to their smug product designer and punch him in the face. Here’s the most recent chain of events.
- Buy monitor and get it set up.
2. Quickly realize this thing takes up most of the desk and because it’s not adjustable at all, gives me a literal pain in the neck because now I have to look slightly up to see the top of the screen.
3. I adjust the expensive chair up a few inches to compensate for the fact I can’t lower the monitor at all.
4. Rather than leave my feet with only my toes touching the ground, I got a mini step stool to rest my feet on. That doesn’t seem to be perfect either, so now I have more leg pain.
5. Now my pull out keyboard and chair arm rests are at odds. I find myself slumping slightly to type because everything is a few inches lower than it should be. Enter more neck and shoulder pain.
6. I lower the chair back down slightly after starting to get that pinchy wrist feeling.
7. I’ve added 2 slim books under my mouse pad after coming away with more wrist pain due to the keyboard pull out still being lower than the arm rests on the expensive chair.
8. I’m seriously about ready to unplug this damn monitor and go back to my 8 year old, 20" Cinema display (which had no glare, btw).
I’m still brainstorming what a perfect solution might be here, but #8 up there is looking better every day.
In Hindsight …
As they say, hindsight is 20/20. If I went back and told my 20 year old self …
“Hey stupid, pay more attention to ergonomics and spend less time on the computer!”
my 20 year old self would have laughed and laughed. This is because when you’re 20, you’re still invincible. Let me tell you though, those years go by really fast and repetitive anything is going to get its revenge on you. Spend less time on the computer, on your phone, on your laptop … take more breaks. Exercise. Go outside. Spend time on getting your ergonomics just right. Your older self will thank you.