Digital Age Brings Generation of Back Pain

Repetitive stress injuries common among workers spending hours a day at a computer

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

It's a common scenario: It's the end of the work day and you're struggling with an achy back and sore neck, even though your physical activity for the day hasn't involved much more than sitting at your desk, eyes glued to a computer screen.

Office workers often cope with repetitive stress injuries, yet they may not give much thought to why they're in pain or what to do about it.

In fact, they may even figure that they slept in a strange position, or must have done something at home or over the weekend to prompt the soreness.

Catching repetitive stress injuries early and taking steps to improve your office space can save you months of physical rehabilitation. It can also save you from unnecessary suffering.

"People are more aware that those types of injuries can occur, but they want to ignore it. If you shake off the pain, it will take longer for it to go away," said Cresta Duin, a senior occupational therapist at St. David's Round Rock Medical Center.

What are repetitive stress injuries?

Also called repetitive motion disorders, repetitive stress injuries include a group of muscular conditions that occur as a result of repeated motion during the course of a normal work day.

They may be the result of too many repetitions of the same activity or awkward or unnatural twisting, muscle fatigue, overexertion or incorrect posture, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Duin said she commonly sees patients suffering from back, neck and shoulder pain, especially those who are sitting at a work station that is not set up properly. Other common office stress injuries include tennis elbow, tendonitis, trigger finger and carpal tunnel syndrome.

The injuries are generally characterized by pain, numbness and tingling, redness and swelling, or loss of flexibility and strength. There could be no symptoms, but a noticeable difficulty in performing certain tasks.

Over a long period of time such motion disorders can cause temporary or permanent soft tissue damage, including injuries to muscles, nerves, tendons and ligaments, or compression of nerves or tissue.

Individuals most at risk of developing repetitive stress injuries include those with jobs or hobbies that require repetitive tasks, including work at computers, assembly line work, sewing, playing musical instruments, tennis, gardening and carpentry.

"It's a combination of the work environment and the devices we use," Duin noted.

Treating repetitive stress injuries

In many cases, determining a course of action for treating a repetitive stress injury depends on how long the patient has been suffering from the ailment. Seeking treatment is critical, as ignored injuries can result in permanent damage and complete loss of function. However, most patients are able to make a complete recovery.

"The thing you want to do first is rest your joints," Duin said. "It's hard for people to peel away from their devices and rest their joints, but necessary. People have a habit of carrying work days over to home where we are seeing people who are middle age who may have arthritis."

Medications such as over the counter pain relievers like Advil, which is also an anti-inflammatory, prescription anti-inflammatory drugs or steroid shots often can reduce pain and swelling. Stretching exercises may also be helpful for some patients.

Physical therapy or occupational therapy may be needed in some cases. Some patients might get relief from wearing splints on the affected area, particularly for pain in the hands or arms. Surgery is an option, but most injuries can be treated with more conservative measures.

One misnomer is that office-related repetitive stress injuries are all derived from spending time in front of a computer. Often, that's just one part of the problem.

"It's cumulative trauma. It's a combination of people sitting at the computer, then they're called away to a meeting, then they're texting on their way back to the computer," Duin said.

"People are expected to be on the phone and on the computer for eight hours a day, and even more at home. It's a cumulative thing that happens when you're just going from one device to another, and are constantly using your hands."

Tips for avoiding repetitive stress injuries

The discomfort might seem unavoidable, especially if you know your job requires you to spend many hours a day in front of the computer or on the phone. However, there are many steps you take that, while simple, can make a significant difference in minimizing work-related aches and pains.

*Make sure your computer work station is set up ergonomically.

Arrange you work station so that your computer monitor is at or just below eye level, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a part of the U.S. Department of Labor. Your head and neck should be balanced and in line with your torso with relaxed shoulders and lower back support. Elbows should be supported on arm rests close to the body, and wrists and hands should be in line with forearms. Keep your feet flat on the floor and ensure ample space for your mouse and keyboard.

Take care in selecting desks and chairs that will allow proper body position. Use a wrist rest to increase comfort. Consider that even selecting the right computer mouse, or using a headset or speakerphone for long phone conversations can reduce stress to your body.

*Take rest breaks.

In between tasks, get up, stretch and take a brief walk around the office. Consider that this might be the perfect opportunity for a bathroom break, a snack, a coffee refill, or even a discussion with a co-worker in another part of the building. These are all perfect excuses for a brief break that will help protect you from achy joints. Take a break once an hour if possible.

*Use ice if you're still sore.

After work take a few minutes to apply ice to soreness to reduce swelling. This could be as simple as applying an ice pack to the inflamed area while watching your favorite television program or while curled up with a book on the couch. Try icing for 20 minutes at a time.

*See a doctor if the pain lasts for more than a couple of days.

Try rest, ice and setting up your work area ergonomically first. If the pain is not better or worsens, don't hesitate to make an appointment with your doctor. Delaying an appointment means the injury could worsen and that the recovery period will be longer.

*Physical therapy is another option your physician may recommend if soreness persists.

For most patients who see a doctor soon after an injury begins bothering them, they may only require a month or less of physical therapy. Waiting to treat or be seen for a repetitive stress injury could mean that the problem worsens, requiring more extensive physical therapy.

"If you let it go months and months, the rehab will double too," Duin noted.

Review Date: 
December 18, 2011