I’m in pain while I’m talking to Alan Hedge, but it’s OK — he’s a professor of ergonomics at Cornell, and he knows about pain.
Hedge is talking about the subtle sort of pain you feel from sitting too long in one place, doing one activity, with bad posture.
If only he could see me.
Cradling the phone between my ear and shoulder, pain is shooting through my neck and back — “–in terms of musculoskeletal injuries the latency period is five to 10 years–” My wrists are sore from typing all day in the contorted position I was forced into by the arrangement of my desk and my chair — “–it’s not a trivial injury.”
As a reporter, I spend many days in that position. I don’t think much of it, since the pain goes away and the only people who seem to worry about carpal tunnel syndrome are middle-aged disgruntled busybodies.
But I should. And so should you.
Although the most extensive studies of the problem are still working their way toward publication, academics who study the issue agree that musculoskeletal injuries — the most commonly known of which are repetitive-stress injuries, or RSIs — are a major unaddressed issue at American universities.
“You thought binge drinking was a problem?” asked Jack Dennerlein, director of the ergonomics program at Harvard’s School of Public Health. “Binge typing is a problem.”
Even more so than journalists, college students tend to do a lot of typing in very intense, long stretches to meet deadlines. Since college students tend not to be aware of the long-term problems, they don’t have very good ergonomic set ups.
“College furniture is awful,” Hedge said.
In fact, I stumbled into the issue when trying to address a reader question: what’s the deal with these rocking desk chairs we have in some Yale dorm rooms? Are they ergonomic?
Well, sort of.
The chairs, which are standard wooden straight-backed chairs that have one corner of their base carved out so they rock about 10 degrees, are certainly not the ergonomic ideal. But they are better than a similar chair that doesn’t rock; Dennerlein said any sort of movement is good.
“We’re not designed to sit still forever,” he said.
But a reclining position is also better since it provides more support for backs.
“They’re a low-end version of what a good chair would be,” Hedge said of the chairs.
Some students are particularly vulnerable to these injuries. Hedge conducted a survey of computer science and engineering students at Cornell and found that 30 to 40 percent of them had injuries. Laptops are particularly non-ergonomic, and as more students turn to them the problems will increase.
Well, so what? Isn’t being able to bring your computer to the library worth a little pain now?
I, too, was fairly unconcerned about injuries until Hedge described the long-term effects: your hand becomes basically crippled, you’re unable to drive a car. With surgery some of this function returns, but your wrist is weakened by about a third. Hedge said he saw one student who after a summer interning as a computer programmer had bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome.
“Although it’s not life threatening, it is life changing and it’s entirely preventable,” Hedge said. “That’s the crazy part about it.”
So, next time you feel a shot of pain, make sure you pay attention to it. Take a break and check out a Web site on how to avoid musculoskeletal injuries: you can find Hedge’s excellent site at ergo.human.cornell.edu.
And, while I hope to avoid repetitive stress injuries, please keep your problems coming to email@example.com — I’m willing to put myself at risk for you.