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Flexing Your Tech Muscles: Injuries to Avoid

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Thanks to near constant onslaught of new technology—from ultra-small computers and garage band video games to Wii—today’s users are falling victim to a completely new set of gadget-induced injuries. A 2006 study done in the United Kingdom found that nearly half of all computer users have experienced some kind of computer-related injury and users between eighteen and twenty-four reported even higher injury rates (70 percent!). It appears these injuries aren’t just a pitfall for techies anymore—home and casual users are also afflicted with a slew of problems related to their tech habits. Maybe I’m paranoid it’ll happen to me, or maybe I just have a really strange sense of humor, but I took a closer look at today’s technology-related injuries … and how to avoid them.


The Wii Factor
True: Wii does have a health advantage over traditional video games because it sometimes requires us to get off the couch and wiggle around. Also true: encouraging people who have spent the majority of their lives on the couch to wiggle around has (not surprisingly) caused some problems for otherwise sedentary bodies. Since coming out in 2006, users of Nintendo’s latest gaming system have been falling victim to what can only be described as sports injuries. I kid you not. Turns out hours of waving the little white Wii controller around can cause some serious aches and pains that were previously reserved for gym rats and tennis players. In November 2006, the Wall Street Journal actually reported on “Wii elbow,” a then-growing phenomenon where players would wake up with numb arms, sore shoulders, and painful elbows. As I checked out some gaming sites in search of these injury sufferers, it looked like the Journal was on to something—many of the users I chatted with experienced muscle strain after Wii-ing, and one even ended up with a pulled groin.


There are even sites dedicated to players that have ended up on the wrong end of the controller. WiiHaveAProblem.com lets visitors post and comment on photos of Wii damages. I only recommend checking it out if you’re into looking at close-ups of bruises, cuts, and swollen limbs. Okay, okay, I have partaken in a little Wii recently (hey, my sister got it for Christmas) and yes, my hand ended up a little sore after an intense session on the guitar. Don’t judge.


So, what’s one to do if she wants to play her Wii and avoid injuries, too? “If it’s the active moving around that’s making you sore, your body should eventually get used to it, just like it would with traditional exercise,” says Sarah Segal, a Seattle-based chiropractor.


That said, injuries that go along with more sedentary gaming can stress our bodies in a slightly different way—to which they won’t necessarily become accustomed.


The Sitting-Still Risks
If you’re a traditional kind of gamer, common injuries will be less sport-mishap and more eye, neck, and hand strain. According to the American Physical Therapy Association, shoulder, hand, and thumb injuries are common from overuse of these kinds of games and video game overuse is more common than you might think. A study by VIDEO showed that nearly a third of video game users classify themselves as an extreme or console-using gamer—and these respondents ranged from logging an average of 8.2 to 22.3 hours each week gaming. Yikes. The constant and repetitive use of the thumbs is often too much for the joints to handle for such long stretches of time and can cause serious problems like tendonitis, bursitis, and carpal tunnel syndrome, says Segal. This also applies to games on computers—the constant dragging and dropping of the mouse has caused heavy users’ arms to go numb and loss of control over their fingers. Try explaining that one to your boss. (See below for tips on how to avoid these problems.)


The Work Desk Woes
From computers to telephones, the innocent-looking desk is actually a minefield of possible techie injuries. At my last job, I sat at a desk, editing articles in a content management system. This means my day consisted of clicking, dragging, and reading small print on a computer screen. Not even one year in, my forearm started to ache and gave me sharp pains on a daily basis. I had to beg my boyfriend for forearm massages—so not sexy. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that over 100,000 employees missed three to five days of work last year because of a musculoskeletal disorder. What is a musculoskeletal disorder? “It means they had a sore neck, back, or wrist,” says Segal. These numbers don’t include those who missed fewer—or more—days for the same reason.


Work-desk injuries are usually a result of repetitive actions, like my dragging and clicking, typing, data entry, and all those mundane chores that make us love our jobs so much. The good news is (for your boss and bank account at least) that these pesky problems can be thwarted with a few tweaks to your office space depending on your specific problem.


Painful forearm, neck, elbow
“A repetitive stress injury pulls on tendons and muscles around a joint, and, when the stress occurs repeatedly, the body doesn’t have time to recover and gets irritated,” says Segal. This can result in things like carpal tunnel, disk compression in the neck, tendonitis, and tennis elbow. Sitting up straight, avoiding tension in your shoulders by rolling them in circles and shrugging them up and down every hour, and positioning legs so that your feet are flat on the floor—get a stool if this isn’t a possibility—will all help counter these strains. “I started bringing an exercise ball to work and sitting on it instead of my chair,” says Leslie Barrie, twenty-four. “It made my back feel better and strengthened my core.” Try to mix your tasks so your muscles are getting as much variety as possible and use your entire arm, not just the wrist, when mousing around.


Eye blurriness or fatigue
The problem with eyes and computer screens is that focusing on one thing at the same distance for a long period fatigues the eyes. “It’s easier for the muscles to view an object at a distance that’s much farther than one foot, which is usually all that separates us from our computers screens,” says Trudi Davis, an ophthalmology student in San Francisco. On top of the distance, the lit-up screen strains the eyes even more, and all this strain often makes it hard for the eyes to focus. Of course, there are things we can do to help save our sight. Give your eyes some variety once every hour. “Take thirty seconds and look at something across the office,” says Davis. “It’ll stretch the muscles that contract in your eyes.” Other eye-savers: tilt the monitor to reduce reflections, position it at eye level, and reduce the brightness of your screen.


Achy back
Sit at a desk long enough, and it’s hard not to start hunching over. This not only causes back and shoulder pain, but it reduces circulation, which compounds our stiffness. Switch to an ergonomic chair (ask your boss to invest in one for you) and it’ll help your back naturally hold its curve while you sit, which will keep you more alert and feeling better through the day. And take breaks. Frequent jaunts around the office or to the corner coffee shop will keep you from slowly hunching into Quasimodo.


Laptop Ailments
Turns out, there’s a special slew of problems for laptop users. Some studies I ran across claimed that the recent increase in computer injuries is due to the ever-growing number of us opting for laptops over desktops. Convenient laptops are ergonomically problematic because our screens and keyboard are drastically closer to each other—if you heighten the monitor, the keyboard is too high; if you lower the keyboard, the monitor’s too low (screens should be at eye level, and keyboards should be much lower). And there’s another ailment unique to the laptop lifestyle—toting it around everywhere. The need to bring it along is usually unavoidable (who would lug their computer around just for fun?), but using a backpack or wheeled suitcase instead of a purse can help offset the back and shoulder strain.


Unfortunately for most of us, having to go work every day and sit in front of a computer is part of life. The good news is that there are ways to counteract the toll of it—whether it’s work-related or recreation-related. And the better news is that in the meantime, as technology and gadgets continue to seep into our lives, we can get a good chuckle out of guitar-hero thumb and Wii elbow.

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