Health hazards for IT workers -- how that desk job wears your body down

Too much junk food, too little exercise and a 24/7 tether to technology? Your body ain't happy, friend. Let us count the pains.

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The AOA's 2007 American Eye-Q survey reveals that 41% of Americans experienced eye strain after prolonged computer or handheld device use, while 45% cited neck or back pain. While many of these symptoms cease once the sufferer is off the computer, some people will continue to experience visual problems, such as blurred distance vision.

Altering viewing distance, changing the screen setup, ensuring proper lighting and monitoring the ergonomics of the desk environment can help. But taking frequent eye breaks is just as important. The AOA suggests practicing the "20/20" rule -- look away from the computer every 20 minutes for 20 seconds to minimize eye-focusing problems and irritation caused by infrequent blinking.

Mental health

Working 10-plus-hour days and maintaining a 24/7 umbilical cord to your BlackBerry amounts to some serious overstimulation for the brain. Without implementing a consistent exercise regimen to boost brain endorphins or allotting the proper downtime for mental relaxation, overworked IT professionals leave themselves vulnerable to increased stress.

During times of stress, the brain releases adrenaline and other hormones to heighten senses and boost strength. While experts consider the normal stress response healthy, chronic stress can harm the immune and cardiovascular systems, and increase vulnerability to heart disease, depression, exhaustion, sleep deprivation and overall malaise, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Undue stress can also trigger anxiety, which can cause its own set of physical and emotional symptoms, including abdominal pain, dizziness, muscle tension and headaches, decreased concentration, irritability and sexual problems. In an extreme form, anxiety can even increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, MSDs, psychological disorders, even suicide and some cancers, according to the International Labour Office's Encyclopaedia of Occupational Safety and Health (subscription required).

High levels of stress and anxiety can also provoke more minor conditions, such as hives, contact dermatitis, heart palpitations and headaches. It can also lead to mindless overeating, which, in turn, can lead to weight gain and its related medical risks.

"What leads to all this disease is trying to function at [a high] level, 24/7," says Howard Waldman, M.D., Ph.D., medical director of the cardiac catheterization lab at the North Shore Medical Center in Salem, Mass., and co-director of the center's Heart Center. "When your BlackBerry is buzzing and you have constant e-mail, it's a sickness."

Posture

Much progress has been made in the past decade in addressing carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive stress injuries through the use of ergonomic keyboards and computer stands. But less focus has been given to correcting how people sit in front of their screens all day, according to Brian McKeon, M.D., chief medical officer for the Boston Celtics and an orthopedist at the Boston Sports & Shoulder Center. Poor posture, coupled with the natural process of losing bone density and flexibility as we age, sets up a perfect storm for a host of back, neck and shoulders problems, such as rotator cuff disease, McKeon says.

And the increasing popularity of portable computers only compounds the problem, because "the design of laptops violates a basic ergonomic requirement for a computer, namely that the keyboard and screen [be] separated," according to the Cornell University Ergonomics Web, which recommends a host of posture-positive tips for laptop users.

Poor posture can lead as well to digestive problems such as indigestion and constipation, McKeon explains, as well as pulmonary disease as lungs become restricted, making it harder to breath. "Bad posture is something we don't take seriously -- most people don't see surgeons for these problems, and we just tend to neglect it," McKeon says. "If we treated posture aggressively from the outset, shoulder, elbow and hand injuries would dramatically decrease."

Back

Without the proper ergonomic setup, deskbound workers like IT professionals run the risk of back and spine injuries, McKeon says. Problems can include anything from cervical radiculopathy (a compression of the nerve roots in the neck) and bursitis of the shoulder on down to pulled or strained muscles, ligaments and tendons in the lower back.

Ironically, the risk of injury is actually compounded when a mostly sedentary worker makes an attempt at exercise. "The desk jockey realizes they've got to exercise so they do things like play tennis or do pushups, but those don't do anything for exercising their back muscles," McKeon says. "They set themselves up for muscle imbalances and can sometimes make things worse."

More than 1 million people lose time from work each year due to musculoskeletal disorders, which can be easily avoided with proper attention to workplace ergonomics and with regular exercise that includes back-strengthening routines, according to "Musculoskeletal Disorders and the Workplace," a report published by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

Arms, hands and elbows

There's been a decrease in the past five years in carpal tunnel syndrome, but there are still plenty of other prevalent repetitive stress ailments afflicting the hands, arms and elbows as a result of prolonged computer use.

Hand and wrist tendonitis, tenosynovitis (also known as DeQuervain's tendonitis) and ulnar nerve entrapment are just some conditions that could be in store for you if you spend too much time at the keyboard without a proper eye to ergonomics.

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