11 Ergonomic Tips for Avoiding RSI

We’ve previously covered ways to improve productivity and comfort while working, including Thursday’s recent post on how to keep your wrists healthy, and Georgina’s DIY suggestions for improving ergonomics. But for those of us who work remotely, at home or on the road, creating a healthy, ergonomic environment can be a challenge.

Remote workers need to be especially vigilant about avoiding Repetitive Stain Injury (RSI). We may be more susceptible to it because coffee shops, airline tray tables, and kitchen tables aren’t designed as computer workstations. I asked licensed massage therapist Wimsey Cherrington, who specializes in treating patients with repetitive strain injuries, to share some low-cost techniques:

  1. Take frequent breaks. Don’t work at your computer for long stretches at a time. Take breaks frequently, preferably every 45 minutes. We wrote about some of the apps that encourage taking breaks a few years ago; there are now more options for desktops, laptops, tablets and phones.
  2. Relax. Cherrington reminded me that “the shoulders should hang effortlessly from the body,” but workers tend to hunch up, leading to shoulder and neck stress. She says that when not actually typing, such as when we’re reading or talking on the phone, we should try to relax our shoulders. And of course, everyone should use a headset when talking on the phone.
  3. Exercise. During breaks, do arm and shoulder exercises. Cherrington recommended exercises similar to these, as they will help reduce stress on the upper body. I find number 7, “releasing the neck,” and number 14, “shaking out tension,” to be particularly useful.
  4. Keep your feet comfortable. Many of us spend most of our day sitting down, but we shouldn’t forget our lower extremities. If you’re in a corporate environment and must wear dress shoes, put them on when you get to work, but wear something comfortable for the commute. And always wear shoes with back straps — no flip-flops! And if you have the freedom to not wear shoes at your workstation, there are a number of simple exercises you can do, like “ankle circles.” Some exercises use a foot roller, which is sort of like a miniature rolling-pin that you can use to reduce stress.
  5. Position yourself for comfort. Set your keyboard low and your chair high. Your elbow should be at a 90 degree angle, and your forearm as close to horizontal as possible.
  6. Lose the back pocket. Don’t keep wallets and other thick items in back pockets to prevent sciatica and related conditions.
  7. Find the right keyboard and mouse. Get a keyboard and mouse that are comfortable for you. Even on the road, if you’re planning to do a lot of work, consider taking an external keyboard and mouse, since laptops’ ergonomics are limited. But no matter what hardware you use, Cherrington agrees with many of those who commented on Thursday’s recent post that it is important to change positions frequently. There are also specialty ergonomic mice like the VerticalMouse and the Smartfish Whirl Laser Mouse, which can tilt forward, back and from to side to side while you move it. Smartfish sent me one to try, and while it took some getting used to, I’ve become a regular user. The Whirl Laser Mouse retails for $49.95 from the Smartfish website.
  8. Use a stand for your laptop or tablet. If you’re using a laptop, an iPad or other tablet, get a case that can be set up as a stand using different angles. I like the ZooGue Case Genius for my original iPad; a version for the iPad 2 will be available soon.
  9. Check your eyeglass prescription. Cherrington says that a surprising number of cases of neck strain can be traced to people who are leaning forward because their eyeglass prescriptions are out-of-date. If you need to lean forward to see your screen, it might be time to get your eyes checked.
  10. Look for ergonomic hotel space. It can be difficult to find ergonomic places to work while on the road, although some business hotels are now offering better desks and chairs. But Cherrington suggests to look for hotels with exercise opportunities. Even if a hotel doesn’t have a gym or exercise room, they may be able to provide yoga mats and small exercise equipment in your room.
  11. Get regular tune-ups. We’re used to getting the oil changed in our cars regularly, but we’re sometimes not as good at maintaining ourselves. Cherringtom suggests you should consult a health professional once a quarter, and don’t wait until you experience pain, tightness or discomfort. But if you get a flare-up, don’t try to “work through” pain — stop what you’re doing and get help.

What do you do to improve ergonomics and avoid RSI?

Photo courtesy sxc.hu user ljleavell