Office Health Hazards
There is little doubt that the computer has revolutionized the modern office. But along with increased ease and efficiency, computer use has also given rise to new office-related injuries, such as repetitive motion disorders, computer vision syndromes, and varicose veins from prolonged sitting. What follows is a description of each of these conditions and a discussion of their relationship to the modern office environment.
Repetitive Motion Disorders
Repetitive motion disorders (RMDs) are a family of muscular conditions that result from repeated motions performed during the course of your normal work or daily activities. They occur when muscles and tendons become irritated and inflamed due to repetitive movements and/or awkward postures, such as twisting the arm or wrist, overexertion, incorrect posture, or muscle fatigue. RMDs occur most commonly in the hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders, but can also happen in the neck, back (back strain), hips, knees, feet, legs, and ankles.
Perhaps the most common and well known RMD is carpal tunnel syndrome , a painful disorder of the hand caused by pressure on the main nerve that runs through the wrists. Other RMDs include:
For some individuals, there may be no visible sign of injury, although they may find it hard to perform easy tasks. Over time, RMDs can cause temporary or permanent damage to the soft tissues in the body—such as the muscles, nerves, tendons, and ligaments—and compression of nerves or tissue. Generally, RMDs affect individuals who perform repetitive tasks such as assembly line work, sewing, playing musical instruments, and computer work.
Despite the seeming correlation between the advent of the computer and an increase in RMD syndromes like carpal tunnel syndrome, clinical research does not bear out a direct causal relationship.
A study conducted in Denmark in more than 3,500 workplaces concluded that computer use does not pose a severe occupational hazard for developing symptoms of RMDs. In this study, about 10% of workers had symptoms that might represent carpal tunnel syndrome. When followed for one year, some of these workers improved and others worsened. Overall, about six percent of workers developed new symptoms possibly due to carpal tunnel syndrome during the year of follow up. Symptoms were significantly related to reported time using a computer mouse—especially when workers used a mouse for 20 hours or more each week.
A 2001 British study comparing keyboard users with non-users found small but significant increases in the risk of neck, shoulder and wrist-hand pain (in women) and in shoulder pain (in men). While computer work is likely associated with increased risk of upper body pain, some researchers now believe that RMDs may reflect inherent genetic susceptibilities of the users rather than computer use alone.
Computer Vision Syndrome
As computers become an integral part of our everyday life, more and more people are also experiencing a variety of vision issues related to computer use. These include:
- Tired eyes
- Blurred vision
- Double vision
Collectively, these conditions are referred to as computer vision syndrome (CVS). CVS may be caused by abnormalities on the surface of the eye or muscle spasms. They may also be caused by ergonomic issues in the work environment, such as lighting, glare, display quality, refresh rates, and radiation. Fortunately, many of these issues can be corrected with proper lighting, anti-glare filters, ergonomic positioning of a computer monitor, and regular work breaks. Lubricating eye drops and special computer glasses may also help.
These solutions are supported by research conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which has reported the following important findings:
- Despite concerns about radiation emission levels from computers, all radiation measurements indicate radiation exposure from computers to be below current occupational exposure standards and, in many cases, below detectable limits
- Eye strain experienced by computer users was often related to screen illumination and screen glare.
- Workstation design features such as viewing distance, screen height, and keyboard height contributed significantly to operator musculoskeletal complaints.
Varicose veins are gnarled, enlarged veins. Any vein may become varicose, but the veins most commonly affected are those in your legs and feet. For many people, varicose veins are simply a cosmetic concern. For others, varicose veins can cause aching, pain, and discomfort, sometimes leading to more serious problems. Signs and symptoms of varicose veins may include:
- An achy or heavy feeling in your legs
- Burning, throbbing, muscle cramping and swelling in your lower legs, exacerbated by prolonged sitting or standing
- Itching around one or more of your veins
- Skin ulcers near your ankle
There is, as yet, no clinical evidence supporting a direct cause and effect relationship between office work and varicose veins. One study conducted in Croatia found that varicose veins were more prevalent in trade workers than office workers and that standing in the workplace and handling weight while working were risk factors for varicose veins.
What Can You Do?
While there may be some debate about the direct causes of these common office-related injuries, there is little debate over the importance of correcting and/or preventing these ailments whenever possible. If you are suffering from any of the disorders discussed above, speak with your office manager about making changes to your workday activities or workspace that may help. Many employers have developed ergonomic programs to help workers adjust their pace of work and arrange office equipment to minimize problems.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
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Last reviewed July 2005 by Larry Frisch, MD, MPH
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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