Technology is wonderful. What would we do without our computers, iPods and cell phones? But despite all the benefits, there are risks related to the improper and excessive use of modern gadgets. Three local experts review the potential harm we face and explain how to enjoy technology safely.
Protecting the Body
Elizabeth Bagley, a chiropractic physician at Vital Force Upper Cervical Clinic, treats patients for many problems caused by long hours at computers. Chronically tight chest muscles that lead to shoulder strain, hip and low back discomfort, and arm and wrist pain are potential symptoms of improper posture and desk position, she says.
“It’s always a good idea to get checked out if you’re feeling any pain, numbness, tingling or dizziness,” Bagley says. “These are signs of bigger problems.” She adds that chiropractic is a first line of defense in the prevention and treatment of repetitive strain injuries.
Bagley recommends that office workers request an ergonomic review of their work environment. Many chiropractors offer assessment services. Bagley makes sure that ”the computer screen is aligned with the keyboard and at eye level. It’s also important to have the keyboard at a level that allows the wrists to be in a relaxed position. People with shorter legs may need a footrest below the desk, and headsets are a must for workers who talk on the phone while typing or writing,” she says.
Workers should also stretch for a couple of minutes every half-hour or so, she advises. “Ergonomic issues are very important, not only for workers but for employers,” Bagley says. “Repetitive work injuries can decrease productivity and increase sick days. Putting simple solutions into place in the work environment helps everyone.”
Protecting the Ears
“There are many recent research articles suggesting that noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is becoming more prevalent,” says Carol Bergmann, an audiologist at the Hearing Health Care Center. “Some suggest one in eight teenagers already has NIHL.”
iPods and other MP3 players can cause hearing damage after just a few minutes at maximum volume. “But it’s not just listening to loud music, it’s everything loud,” Bergmann says. “Lawn mowers, power tools, chainsaws, fireworks, concerts, etc. You should wear hearing protection for all of them.”
An inability to understand spoken words and the frequent need to ask others to repeat themselves are early symptoms of NIHL. And while hearing aids can help, Bergmann notes that once the auditory system is damaged, it cannot be repaired. “If you leave someplace loud and your ears are ringing or sounds seem muffled, you’ve probably done some damage,” she says. “It may be temporary or permanent, and it can happen as quickly as a firecracker exploding. Protect your hearing while you have it.”
Protecting the Eyes
Staring at screens won’t make you blind, but “short-term irritation is a common problem,” says Todd La Point, an optometrist at Eye Care Associates of St. Louis. “Problems like dry eyes, strain and headaches are most often solved by taking some time away from the offending screen.”
Newer screens, especially LCD, seem to be easier on the eyes, he says. “Reducing glare with anti-glare screens or anti-reflective coatings on eyeglasses can help. Decreasing glare from windows, poorly placed lights and other things, like bright walls or counters, is also helpful.” Optimal room lighting should match the brightness of the screen or be slightly dimmer, La Point adds.
“I suggest being about two feet away from the computer screen,” he says. “And it’s best to have the monitor about 12 inches below your primary line of sight. However, this can be difficult in many work areas, and wearing bifocals can pose other issues if the screen is higher.” Like stretching your body periodically, La Point suggests periodic vision breaks. “If you can’t get away from the screen, then at least look away to something in the distance every 15 minutes or so. And train yourself to blink more often, too.”