“If you can’t be a shining example, at least you can be a horrible warning”
**– Oscar Wilde
I’m no physiotherapist, despite seeing one regularly for many years, but I think I’ve hurt myself in a sufficient number of ways that I can at the very least provide warning about some of the more non-obvious ones.
If it’s not already obvious, I’m a software developer. Our business involves an awful lot of sitting, and while doing that sitting we are very often typing and perhaps at the same time mousing. (Pretty sure that’s a word – if it isn’t, it ought to be).
Thinking about those activities, you’d think we’ve definitely got it pretty easy. Sitting sounds pretty painless, and typing is just a form of wiggling your fingers, right? How hard can it be, and what harm can you do yourself by doing it.
The easy answer is that neither activity is by itself particularly harmful, at least not immediately. The second phrase there is they key one: not immediately. When done for a short period of time by an otherwise healthy person, both sitting and typing can be done fairly safely.
The difficulty with software developers, of course, and in particular those who are deeply into their craft and its pursuit, is that we don’t do it for a little while, or for just a bit. We do it a lot.
By “a lot” I mean almost always for at least ten hours a day, often for fourteen or fifteen. When we’re not in front of the keyboard and monitor we might well be found clutching the smaller screen of a tablet or smartphone.
Of course, in addition to the abuse this does on the rest of our bodies it also puts our eyes under significant strain.
I can attest that the so-called eyestrain doesn’t just affect the eyeballs, but most of the attached peripherals, such as the neck. It’s bad enough that our vision is under stress, of course. Despite modern advances, you still pretty much only get one set of eyes per customer.
The relatively direct effects of long periods of time at the screen are actually felt through almost the entire body. Sitting is a somewhat unnatural position for humans, oddly enough – our bodies were meant to move, and when not moving the positions of laying down or even squatting are actually more compatible with our structure than sitting, even though we do it a lot.
Surprisingly, then, the seemingly physically straightforward act of working at a computer for a long period of time can be highly destructive to our health. Far from being benign, we’re actually subjecting ourselves to a slow-motion spanish inquisition.
I can attest to the reality of the kind of repetitive stress syndrome that is caused by long-term typing is very real, as I suffer from them every day. The kind of wrist or arm strain that is often attributed to carpal tunnel syndrome is generally not that syndrome directly, but also a form of RSI as well. Whatever its diagnosis, the serious pain and lack of mobility caused by it is incredibly common in our business. What’s even more nasty, though, is that the wrist and arm pain is only the most obvious symptom of the overall problem. By the time you feel the pain in your wrists, you have probably already done harm to your back, your shoulders, and your neck – at least.
Developers also find that the sitting tends to develop pressure and pain in the lower back. Again, this is just the bit of the iceberg that you can actually feel. Worse than the actual pain is that you could be developing sciatica – pressure on nerves that run from your back down to your leg, right through the – uh – interface with the chair, shall we say. Been there, done that, got the ice pack.
If you aren’t sufficiently scared already, you should see me totter out of my chair after a long coding session – that’ll put the fear into you :).
In all seriousness, though, the ravages of the physical tool of software development are no laughing matter. In one group of developers I’ve worked with, out of about thirty of us, at least ten had some form of wrist and hand pain, and were wearing various braces and devices to help with it. It’s not good odds, and if you do it as long as I have, it’s pretty hard to avoid having it add up. Hard, but not impossible…
What to do?
So, if you’ve decided that chronic pain just doesn’t sound like that much fun, what can you do to avoid it creeping up on you?
Given that you’re probably a software developer, I know better than to tell you “don’t develop”. Yeah, right.
If you’re in this business, that IS your business, and you can’t exactly avoid it. Of course, there’s voice recognition,which despite decades of slow improvement is only all the way up to Awful. So what to do?
Have a Seat
Developers spend a lot of time and money on chairs, and with good reason. A good chair can make the difference between long-term injury mere back strain.
Now, no matter how good your chair is, you still need to heed my warning and get up out of it regularly, but you should consider your chair (and many of your other ergonomic items we’ll discuss here), as good solid investments in your own ability to continue to work sustainably.
If you’re unfortunate enough to be employed somewhere that doesn’t take the proper care in chair selection, bring your own. It’s worth it.
I won’t try to enumerate all of the correct attributes of a good ergonomic chair, there are plenty of places on the web which will inundate you with opinions on which is better. Let me simply make a few observations on what I’ve found effective instead:
- More expensive is not necessarily better, at least beyond a certain point
- Cheap chairs aren’t worth it – you’ll give the money to your chiropractor instead
- Low back and lumbar support are more important than high back support.
- I’ve never personally found the backless, saddle or kneeling chairs worth a darn, but of course your mileage may vary
- Exercise balls are great for exercising, not so much for sitting
Put Your Feet Up
A decent, heavy footrest is an essential part of your equipment. When you’re sitting, don’t let your feet dangle, keep them flat on a footrest. Again, information abounds about this on the net, and a footrest is a tiny investment compared to a good chair.
A substantial size monitor is another essential tool. A larger screen not only means you can sit back further from the monitor, allowing a more natural position, but it gives you the opportunity to reduce eyestrain as well. A larger screen also allows your eyes to move around a bit more than a smaller area.
Again, this is one of those areas that you must consider an essential expense, as you’ll more than make up for it in the ability to work comfortably longer than you can with a small monitor.
A laptop (unless it’s docked or has external peripherals, in which case it’s more of a desktop for the purposes of this discussion) does not generally permit the screen to be high enough or at the correct angle relative to the keyboard to be even in the same league as a desktop solution, ergonomically.
The one thing that laptops do pretty well is allow you to use a sit-stand solution, but even there they are a poor compromise compared to a good monitor and keyboard arm.
Don’t get me wrong – I own several laptops, and love ‘em, but I only use them when I’m not at my desk, not when I am.
I haven’t had this problem personally, as I don’t do much with my ancient iPad other than a bit of reading, but people that use it more than I have actually started having an issue that is very much like tennis elbow, but in this case could be more correctly called “iPad elbow”. It’s no laughing matter, and quite painful. The secret is to use some manner of stand or case with a stand so you’re not actually holding the iPad directly. Of course, this means it’s ergonomically the equivilant of a laptop.
You also don’t want to do too much content creation on an iPad – unless it’s handwriting or drawing. Typing on a virtual keyboard turns into a very real pain.
Give yourself the Finger
Some of the problems that get started in your hands when you use them to type too much on a keyboard are no different than the same problems suffered by typists of yesteryear. They may have been bashing on a typewriter, but they found the same kind of pains that we experience, and came up with a few things that help that we can still use today.
Some of them are exercises – have a google for them, and give a few a try.
Another is the idea of “typing gloves”. With today’s lightweight fabric these are more wearable than ever – I have a couple of pair, and use them often, even in the summertime. They don’t just warm your hands, they also provide a gentle compression that is helpful and feels quite good.
Keyboards and Friends
I’m a bit of a keyboard collector, and have tried everything from the Fingerworks keyboard (subsequently purchased by Apple and, rumor has it, the inspiration for the touch-screens on the iPhone and such), to the exotic split keyboards, one-handed keyboards, game-controller keyboards, and many others. In fact, I’ve tried so many keyboards that I’m going to post a series of articles reviewing each of them, as they all have their place and advantages, so that’s a story for later.
Suffice it to say that the “default” keyboard is probably not what you want. Get something a bit more ergonomic, and ideally with mechanical switches. You can thank me later.
In the area of mice, or mice-like devices, I’ve got quite a collection as well, and again, I’ll post about ‘em one at a time later on. My current favorite is the Kensington Professional Trackball, but it’s good to mix it up a bit, switching devices from time to time so your hands don’t get as tired of one device.
I’m also a bit proponent of using the keyboard as much as possible, so mice become less important to me in any case.
Get a Move On
The REAL solution to avoid all of the injuries you can easily do yourself while sitting at a computer for many hours is to not do it. Barring that, at the very least you should break it up into smaller chunks, with some movement in between.
You may want to consider approaches such as a timer (I use an hourglass myself) or the Pomodoro technique or one of its variants, and make each break a time to get up out of the chair.
You need to find motivation to get up and about: For me, it’s that my desk is about thirty yards from the rest of my team, so I get to hoof it back and forth a few hundred times a day.
At home I use a pair of hundred-pound German Shephard Dogs. You use what works!
In addition to frequently getting up out of the chair, you should also find some desk-bound stretches to do even more regularly.
I neglected this for far too long, and now they’re not an option anymore – I have a handy-dandy shooting pain in my shoulders, back, neck and side to remind me it’s time to get my butt in motion.
Please don’t do this – it’s not as much fun as it sounds, and it doesn’t sound like any fun at all.
There are many other elements to a sustainable ergonomic environment, but the key mindset change is to think of ergonomics as a very worthwhile investment, not a luxury.
Your mileage is sure to vary, so go see an actual health-care professional. Oh, and if you’re sitting reading this blog, get up and go for a walk!