Is Your Computer Harming Your Health?

A digital malady called “iPad shoulder” joins computer vision syndrome, BlackBerry thumb and E-thrombosis on the list of odd—and often painful—disorders afflicting our increasingly wired society.

In a new study, researchers at Harvard’s School of Public Health report that the millions of Americans who use tablet computers, such as the iPad, risk shoulder and neck injuries because of the way they hold the high-tech devices. In the study, 15 experienced users performed a range of simulated tasks on an iPad 2 and Motorala Xoom while their postures were analyzed with a 3-D motion analysis system.

While using the tablets, the volunteers bent their necks more, compared to using a desktop or laptop device, especially when the tablet was in their lap. That hunched posture strains the neck and shoulders, the researchers say. They advise tablet devotees to change positions every 15 minutes, move their neck around to release tension, and to use a case to prop the iPad at the preferred angle of 30 degrees.

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Computer Vision Syndrome

Marked by dry eye, neck and shoulder pain, blurred vision, eyestrain, and headaches, computer vision syndrome (CVS) is sparked by overuse of computers, particularly desktops with large screens. While it’s usually temporary, severe cases can be extremely debilitating, says Roy Chuck, MD, PhD, Chairman of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at Montefiore Medical Center in NY. The best ways to relieve or avoid CVS are better posture, using a smaller screen, improving lighting to reduce glare on the screen, taking frequent breaks, and ultimately, decreasing computer use, says Dr. Chuck.

E-thrombosis

Long airline flights aren’t the only risk for deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism (DVT/PE, potentially fatal blood clots that form in leg veins and travel to the lungs). In 2003, Australian researchers report that a 32-year-old man nearly died from DVT/PE after spending up to 18 hours a day parked in front of his computer, the first reported cases of what’s been dubbed e-thrombosis

The research team then reviewed medical charts at Wellington Hospital and found many additional cases of e-thrombosis among heavy computer users who lacked other risk factors for DVT, leading them to theorize that this potentially lethal disorder may actually be relatively common. Up to 600,000 Americans develop DVT/PE annually, the CDC reports, and 20 percent of them die. It’s not known how many cases are linked to heavy computer use. To prevent e-thrombosis, get up and move around every hour or two while using your computer.

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BlackBerry Thumb

Aching, throbbing, numbness, or tingling in the area between your thumb and wrist can be triggered by an overuse injury called BlackBerry thumb, brought on by long hours of texting or emailing on handheld electronics. Treatments include icing, OTC or Rx anti-inflammatory drugs, wearing a splint to keep the wrist in a neutral position, using ergonomic equipment, physical therapy, and for more severe cases, cortisone injections or even surgery.

To prevent BlackBerry thumb, the American Society of Hand Therapists advises resting your arms on a pillow for support and taking frequent breaks from texting and emailing on mobile devices.

Use these stretches to help with pain and posture.

Repetitive Strain Injuries

Heavy computer use can put you at risk for a variety of repetitive strain injuries (RSI), painful conditions affecting muscles, tendons or nerves. If your hands go numb or tingle, that often signals signal RSI. A few minor changes in your office setup and habits can prevent months or years of pain, Harvard RSI Action reports:

  • Take frequent breaks from texting or typing on a keyboard and let your arms drop to your side.
  • Get up and stretch every 30 minutes. A lot of computer users have a tendency to “wear their shoulders as earrings,” so be sure loosen up tensed shoulder muscles.
  • Practice good ergonomics. Type with your wrists straight, using a keyboard that’s level or has a slight downward title (top row lower than the bottom).

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Computer-Related Accidents

Watch out when you step away from your computer. There’s been a 732 percent rise in injuries due to such mishaps as tripping over cords or devices, hitting body parts or getting caught in the equipment, and devices falling on top of people, a 2009 study reported, with more than 78,000 Americans requiring ER care for such injuries between 1994 and 2006. Ninety-three percent of the injuries occurred at home. To protect your family, keep computer equipment away from the edge of your desk and stow cords safely, preferably behind furniture. For more computer safety tips, click here.

Insomnia

Can’t sleep? Your computer or mobile device might making you too wired to rest. 95 percent of Americans use electronic devices—from tweeting to texting, playing video games, and watching TV—at least a few nights a week in the hour or so before they hit the sack, according to a 2011 National Sleep Foundation survey.

Exposure to bright light from electronic screens suppresses release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, enhances alertness and shifts circadian rhythms to a later hour—making it more difficult to fall asleep. The quickest fix is to go off the grid at least 60 minutes before bedtime. Taking a warm bath before bed can also help you fall asleep more quickly.

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