July 14, 2003 Businesses and organizations spend billions of dollars a year on computer hardware and software, but allot almost nothing for techniques to avoid repetitive stress injury and other related computer disorders.
By measuring muscle actions and breathing, Erik Peper, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Holistic Healing Studies at San Francisco State University, and colleagues have found that people can learn to recognize early symptoms that can lead to injury and then take steps to maintain their health.
The studies on assessing, treating and preventing these computer-related injuries appear in the current issue of the journal Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback.
Peper and colleagues used a technique called surface electromyography to measure the action of muscles in the upper back, the right shoulder and right forearm in right-handed people using a computer mouse. Another device measured breathing rates. The advantage of surface electromyography is that it can point out to both observers and participants which muscles were tense before they were aware of the tension and long before injury occurs.
The researchers tested 18 volunteers as they typed on a keyboard and used a mouse. As they performed these operations, the subjects breathed faster and experienced tension in all the muscle groups, including the upper back opposite the mouse hand.
Muscle tension combined with minimal movement may cause problems by limiting the flow of blood and thus slowing muscle regeneration. Rapid and shallow breathing also increases neck and shoulder tension and raises the risk of hyperventilation.
"Most participants were surprised that they had increased breathing rates and heightened muscle activity during the type-and-point test," Peper says. "People are so totally wrapped up in their work that they are unaware of tension patterns until they experience discomfort."
Even with proper ergonomic settings for the keyboard and mouse, Peper says, people often unknowingly engage unnecessary muscles, which can lead to repetitive stress injury.
Peper and colleagues offered another group of volunteers training in muscle relaxation and breathing, using surface electromyography to make the subjects aware of what their bodies were doing. After three training sessions and practicing the skills at home, they were tested again. The volunteers reported significantly decreased symptoms, compared to a control group. They felt better and had learned to relax their neck and shoulders, breathed from their diaphragm rather than their chest, took both short and longer breaks, and made changes in their working patterns to reduce the risk of repetitive stress injury.
"People who work with computers need the skills to use themselves correctly and efficiently at the computer while maintaining health," he says. "Training needs to focus on awareness of muscle tension, lower stress, and slower breathing when computing and then practicing strategies like breaks and movement while actually at work."
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