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Ergonomics More Important Than Ever While Working at Home

Backaches, eyestrain, wrist pain are a danger with too-casual tech habits

spinner image Man with hand on his neck in pain in front of his computer desk
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Consider it one of the downsides of our increased reliance on technology: a potential decline in our physical health.

Because we're so attached to our computers, e-readers, smartphones and tablets, we face carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive strain injuries; back, eye and neck strain; plus problems associated with a general lack of exercise.

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Moderation in using devices is key, of course, but whether you're working from home or simply want to minimize any physical problems when you're on your laptop or phone for recreation, here are some easy-to-apply pointers.

spinner image Single office chair in austere office.*
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Sit straight

Invest in a decent chair. While sitting at a desk, workers need a chair with lower-back support.

But you need not spend hundreds of dollars on one. Some discount retailers sell an all-leather armchair with cushioned lumbar vertebrae support for less than $80. A chair with wheels is also a good idea, so you can position yourself easily for more comfort.

Your mouse and keyboard should be at about elbow level. And your feet should be flat on the floor. Use a milk crate for your feet if you're shorter in stature, like yours truly. This also should help prevent you from hunching over at your desk.

Position your screen

If you need to place your monitor to the left or right side of the desk, position your chair so you're not turning your head to see the screen; over time, this could put unnecessary strain on your neck. Your head should be centered with your body, and you should be looking straight ahead at eye level to see your monitor. You can use stacks of thick hardcover books to help you raise the laptop and monitor to the proper height.

Also, make sure you have adequate lighting, to minimize straining to see the keyboard, monitor or papers on your desk. If you find yourself squinting to see the text on-screen, enlarge the font. In your favorite web browser, email program or word processor, simply select a larger text size or zoom level. Bigger monitors, which are cheap these days, fit more words on the screen.

spinner image A workplace with a computer. On the desk is a hand in relief position with an ergonomic mouse. In addition to the vertical mouse, a small pillow supports the wrist. Health prevention.
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Pick a good mouse

When shopping for a mouse, try it out at a store first, to make sure it's comfortable for you. This includes the size and shape of the mouse, because many brands come in small, medium and large, or even extra large.

If you do buy one online, check the seller's return policy. Some mice may be ideal for both left- and right-handed users. Your mouse should have a curved hump on top to comfortably fit the underside of your palm.

When using a mouse, try to limit your wrist movement, focusing on keeping your wrist straight and your elbow pivoted and moving only your forearm.

If using a mouse causes you wrist discomfort, consider a trackball. These devices don't require wrist movement at all; rather, you simply rest your hand on top and use your fingertips to move the ball.

And your mousepad doesn't have to be flat. Some come with a foam or gel pad that conforms to your wrist for support.

Consider an ergonomic keyboard

Keyboards come in all shapes and sizes separate from your laptop computer. More ergonomically designed ones could help prevent or reduce repetitive strain injuries. Many have a split and slightly angled keyboard that tilts inward to better fit our natural wrist-resting position.

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Another tip: Try to keep your wrists almost floating above the keyboard so that your hands can easily reach all keys, instead of stretching your fingers to reach them.

Some computer users prefer a padded or gel wrist rest that sits in front of the keyboard.

Especially if you use a laptop, consider getting an external keyboard for your home office or for when you're in one place for a long time. A bigger or curved keyboard will be better for your wrists than the more compact ones on portable PCs.

spinner image Man doing stretching in his home office
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Headsets and stretches

If you talk frequently on the phone, purchase a headset so you're not trying to hold the phone between your neck and ear while typing. That's a sure way to increase neck strain. Or you can use a pair of Bluetooth wireless earbuds, as long as they have an integrated microphone.

Neck strain also increases when you look straight down at a smartphone or other mobile device while emailing, playing games or texting.

Instead, raise your hands so you're not looking straight down. Or place your elbows onto a table (never mind what your mom told you), so you can look ahead when using a smartphone or tablet.

Take frequent breaks

Stretch. Do some neck, back and arm exercises. Close your eyes for five seconds. Stand up and get a drink of water.

Remember, you could be damaging your body without realizing it when using technology, but small adjustments can make a big difference.

Marc Saltzman has been a freelance technology journalist for 25 years. His podcast, “Tech It Out,” aims to break down geek speak into street speak.