Thursday, February 10, 2011

Back, Neck Pain Still Plague Computer Workers

Briefly NotedResearch in the pain management field appears to have largely overlooked a common cause of strain and pain incurring musculoskeletal disorders — working at computers. Ergonomic remedies have long been available but are rarely, if ever, discussed in the pain literature. Perhaps, now is a good time for renewed awareness of these problems and their solutions; especially since healthcare providers, themselves, are plagued by the problems.

As recently reported in the Times of India (February 7, 2011 [here]), physiotherapist Aalap Shah, MD, studied 970 computer workers (employees of information technology, or IT, companies) aged 23 to 36 years. He found that almost half (46%) suffered from neck pain and nearly 60% complained of back pain. Furthermore, greater than 1 in 5 complained of stress (21%) and regular headaches (23%) directly related to their work at computers.

Shah observes that neck and back pain have become occupational hazards for employees who often spend most of the day working at a computer. "What is alarming is that some professionals exhibited severe spine problems at a young age when their problem becomes so severe that it affects their quality of life," he said.

Meanwhile, with electronic records and other computer applications becoming ubiquitous throughout medical practice, healthcare providers are not immune from the hazards. For example, a small survey of radiologists at a large tertiary-care hospital found that 80% reported some sort of musculoskeletal problem during the prior 12 months.

The report, appearing in the August 2010 edition of RSNA News from the Radiological Society of North America [here], noted that the most frequent complaints were neck pain (43%), back pain (39%), shoulder pain (32%), headaches (32%), and wrist pain (7%). Nearly all respondents (96%) were using 2 or 3 computer monitors at their workstations.

COMMENTARY: During the early 1990s, reports of repetitive strain injuries associated with laboring long hours at computer workstations appeared almost daily in the news media. The reason was simple: journalists being switched from manual typewriters to computerized data entry systems for writing their stories were, themselves, feeling the agony and wanted to alert the public. Within a decade the media furor seemed to have subsided, but the ravages of toiling at computers continued to take a toll. Today, a younger generation raised with computers since birth has apparently reached an age where the stresses and strains are becoming evident in their visits to pain clinics.

The importance of computer ergonomics — adapting computer components, workstations, and the environment to the comfort needs of the worker — was recognized more than 20 years ago. Making relatively simple adjustments to the positioning of keyboards, mice, and monitors, along with highly adjustable and supportive seating, has sometimes provided dramatic relief from seemingly intractable pain conditions. Yet, these solutions usually go unrecognized by healthcare providers, either because the medical literature they typically read is not discussing them or ergonomic solutions are considered outside the purview of everyday pain-care practice.

Now that healthcare providers themselves are beginning to feel the sting of poor ergonomics in their increasingly computerized environments, it is time for action. However, as the RSNA News article suggests, while better ergonomics would benefit both healthcare professionals and their patients, significant changes in this area have been slow in coming. In the case of radiologists, even simple changes can help to relieve a lot of strain and pain: such as more adjustable workstations that also allow standing part time while working, special exercises even while working, plus an overall understanding and appreciation of what ergonomics entails.

This is an expansive topic for discussion; yet, ergonomics actually is not a very complicated science and the solutions are very economical compared with the costs of disability, and the medications or other interventions to deal with the physical carnage of discomfort at the computer. So, this is something worth considering and looking into further the next time your neck, back, arms, and/or wrists are aching.