Computer programmers, or coders, work many hours seated in front of a computer typing on a keyboard. Over time, these working conditions can contribute to work-related health problems if prevention strategies are not incorporated. This article will highlight the most common work-related health problems encountered by computer programmers and offer suggestions to prevent them.
Cumulative Trauma Disorder
Cumulative trauma disorder (CTD) is a general term that describes a range of physical problems caused by repeated movements using a keyboard and/or a mouse. Over time, the repetitions have upset the normal body balance. About two-thirds of all work-related injuries are caused by CTD. Although a number of different disorders are generally labeled as CTD, they all result in similar symptoms such as pain, numbness, tingling, and/or loss of strength in the hands, wrist, forearms or elbow. The most common CTD injuries in coders are carpal tunnel syndrome, ganglion cysts in the wrist and inflammation of tendons in the wrist and elbow. Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by nerve compression from swollen tendons in the wrist. Ganglion cysts are caused by joint degeneration and often result in a small bump on the wrist. Tendonitis causes pain and swelling of the tendons around the wrist and/or elbow. These injuries usually develop slowly from repeated movements coupled with poor posture and may take years before symptoms are noticed. Prevention techniques to avoid CTD include:
• Position the forearms at a 90 degree angle with the wrists in a neutral position to reduce pressure on tendons and nerves. Adjust the chair, desk, and mouse pad to achieve this body position.
• Use a well-cushioned rest for the wrist and forearm while typing to avoid “contact stress”, which puts direct pressure on nerves and tendons
• Try to take a break to walk around for 5 minutes every hour
• Perform easy stretching exercises before, during, and after work specifically for the wrist, forearms, and elbow.
• If CTD has progressed to the point where osteoarthritis of the wrist or elbow has developed, consider taking the dietary supplement glucosamine. Glucosamine has anti-inflammatory effects and helps to reduce cartilage damage. Typical glucosamine dosages are 1000-1500 mg per day. A full spectrum liquid vitamins supplement may prove helpful as well. The best liquid vitamins are those that are derived from whole foods.
Back, Neck, and Shoulder Problems
Lower back pain is one of the most common musculoskeletal conditions in adults with about 80% of adults reporting low back pain at least once in their lifetime. Neck and shoulder pain is extremely common in frequent computer users while occurring much less in the general population. Computer programmers are at high risk of musculoskeletal problems in the back, neck, and shoulder primarily due to the amount of time sitting in positions that are not ergonomically correct. Although each day of poor posture results in very little trauma to the soft tissues, repeated microtrauma can ultimately lead to muscle strain and joint inflammation. Back, neck, and shoulder overuse injuries can be prevented by following the tips below.
• Ensure that your lower back is against the back rest of the seat, which will reduce tension and possible strain of the lower back muscles. Use a lumbar support to ensure adequate back support.
• Buy an ergonomic chair with plenty of adjustment points to ensure an individualized fit. Consider using an exercise ball as a work chair. An exercise ball requires you to constantly contract the stabilizing muscles of your torso to stay balanced. Strengthening these core muscles will reduce the risk for lower back strain from poor posture and ergonomics.
• Adjust your workstation so that frequently used objects are easily within reach. Try to minimize reaching, twisting, and turning the head.
• Try to take a break to walk around for 5 minutes every hour
Eye strain occurs when a person looks at a computer screen for long periods of time. Symptoms of eye strain include tired, burning, or watery eyes, blurred vision, headache, and light sensitivity. Normally, symptoms of eye strain are not permanent and will lessen once the eyes are rested. However, it can sometimes take a few days for symptoms to completely resolve. For the full-time coder, breaks of several days are not practical and the condition can easily worsen over time. Below are ways to prevent eye strain from becoming a chronic problem with lingering visual side effects
• Take breaks for your eyes during the day. Each hour, spend 5 minutes looking at something other than your computer screen.
• Blink more often or use eye drops to avoid dry eyes.
• Ensure the computer monitor is an appropriate distance from your eyes, usually about 24 inches.
• Check office lighting for excess glare on the monitor, which can cause eye strain.
General Health Issues
Computer programmers often work long hours under tight deadlines. Many coders have little time to walk away from the computer while at work and little spare time outside of work. As a consequence, many coders eat salty, sugary and caffeinated snacks and beverages during the day or they will even skip eating altogether. Proper nutrition is important to support general health and combat fatigue. Programmers will often not take time away from the computer to eat a meal and will choose snacks from a vending machine. The high sugar content and lack of protein and fiber in most snack foods contribute to increased fatigue in the afternoon from blood sugar drops.
• Spend 5 minutes each morning to pack a healthy lunch.
• To prevent fatigue by maintaining blood sugar levels, eat a snack in the morning and one in the afternoon. Snacks should contain protein, fat or fiber to blunt blood sugar rises. Examples of healthy snacks include nuts, fruit, yogurt or nutrition bars/shakes. Raw vegetables are an excellent snack and are rich in health promoting phytonutrients
• Limit caffeine intake and stick with non-caffeinated beverages after mid-morning. This will help maintain adequate hydration, help avoid late day “caffeine crash” and may help with sleep problems.
Programmers should dedicate time on most days to exercise, preferably an enjoyable activity to help maintain compliance. However, coders are frequently sedentary due to a perceived lack of time. Workers with full-time jobs have better exercise compliance if they workout in the morning since lack of time and fatigue often sabotage plans for workouts later in the day. Improvements in overall fitness and muscular strength can help to minimize fatigue and prevent muscle and joint injuries in the workplace.
Computer programming is a demanding job with 30% of coders reporting symptoms of computer-related injury. These injuries are largely preventable with proper ergonomics, adequate rest, proper nutrition, adequate exercise, and stretching.
Dr Linda Posch, MS SLP ND