No pain, no strain!

RSI Week: RSI isn’t an inevitable consequence of using a PC. By being careful with your workplace ergonomics you should be fine

Good workstation layout is important both in the office and at home. Your employer has an obligation to ensure your workstation area is suitable for the work you're doing, but you can take some responsibility yourself. It's also not just work that can cause RSI -- playing PC games is just as much of a risk activity. RSI is preventable though, providing you're sensible about your working environment. Here are just a few tips on minimising your risk.

First, remember to take regular breaks from typing and using the mouse. Some experts suggest 30 seconds every 10 minutes should be enough, although some others recommend a five-minute break every half hour. You should also remember to look away from your monitor while taking a break. While this isn't related to RSI directly, it can help avoid eye problems caused by monitor use. Don't average this out over the day -- having a meeting all morning doesn't mean you don't need to take breaks during the afternoon.

Vary your work patterns, so that you're not doing the same type of work for long periods. This could involve switching between typing and doing research where you're mostly reading documents. If you have a few meetings during the day, try to schedule them so they're spread out, rather than all being in the morning, for instance.

Drink plenty of water -- while this may not seem directly relevant, dehydration reduces blood flow which could make inflammation worse.

Good posture is important to remember when using a PC:

• Your chair should provide adequate support, and you should sit with your back straight.
• Your monitor should just be at eye level or just below, which usually means using a monitor stand to raise it.   Some newer LCD monitors have a height adjustment.
• Your feet should be flat on the floor -- if not, get a foot rest.
• When typing your wrists should be straight. The tendency for most people is to rest the wrists in front of the keyboard, and indeed many keyboards incorporate "wrist rests". Unfortunately these don't solve the problem, and can actually make it worse. The position of least strain is with the back of the hand in a straight line with the arm.

 

Try to avoid using the mouse wherever possible. Use keyboard shortcuts to access menus, and commands instead of clicking on them. Visit the RSI Association web site to get downloadable help sheets for Windows and Mac keyboard shortcuts. Take the time to learn the shortcuts for the applications you use most -- you may find that you can do virtually everything from the keyboard.

If you can't avoid using a mouse, then try to arrange your work space so that you're not over-reaching for it.  If you have lots of work to do using a pointer -- graphics work is one example -- look at an alternative input device, such as a graphics tablet, which doesn't cause as much strain as a mouse.

Getting the right posture when you’re using a notebook can be more difficult, since you can’t adjust the height of the screen relative to the keyboard. If you’re in the office a docking station or port replicator will allow you to attach an external monitor, mouse and keyboard.  If you're using a notebook away from the office, try to avoid using unsuitable work places, such as low tables, for long periods.

Finally, don't ignore what your body is telling you. If you notice some pain or discomfort while doing a particular task, stop doing it and take a break. If it persists, consult a doctor and re-evaluate your working environment. While taking painkillers will mask the symptoms, they won't stop the damage being done.

Check out our reviews of alternative input devices, including ergonomically designed keyboards and pen input devices.

We've put together a list of downloads including programs which will monitor your keyboard and mouse use and remind you to take a break. There's also information on good working habits in there.

There's a lot of information about the causes of RSI and how to avoid it on the RSI Association web site. You can also call their helpline on 0800 018 5012. 

Check ZDNet UK's RSI Special Report for all the news, advice, reviews and downloads you need to stay healthy and free of Repetitive Strain Injury.

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