There are a number of health problems in software professionals that we see in our practice. If you are one who sits in front of a computer for long hours, then this article is for you.
According to an article in Computer World published a while ago, there will be over 5.2 million software professionals in India by 2018. The predicted rate is higher than the US, where it is believed there will be 4.5 million.
That’s a lot of software folks, and that is a lot of health problems as well.
Clinical studies done in India have found that software engineers who work long hours suffer mostly from musculoskeletal problems, eye problems and psychosocial issues.
Here are some of the common health problems you can expect if you sit for long hours in front of a computer.
Health Problems In Software Professionals
#1 Lower Back Pain
This is probably the most common problem we encounter in practice. In fact, postural back pain has been termed a ‘major public and occupational health problem’ by clinical researchers.
Almost 80% of people who spend more than 8 hours in front of a computer have low back pain.
A majority of IT professionals spend long hours slouched in front of a computer screen. This posture can place a great deal of stress on the joints and cartilage that form a part of the spinal cord.
Low back pain is not to be taken lightly. Over a period of time, the stress and the strain on the ligaments can lead to permanent changes in it’s structure.
This eventually leads to chronic back pain.
I had the opportunity to speak with Mrs Reema Nayak, a senior physiotherapist based in the United Kingdom, about what the right posture to adopt is when seated at your desk for long hours.
“When sat in front of a computer, be aware of your posture. All of us tend to sit in a forward flexed (bent) posture. This can have an impact on your back in the long term” says Reema.
“Always sit upright with your shoulder back and head straight. Adjust your work station so that your forearm is resting on the table and your hand is light resting on the mouse pad”.
“Keep moving around every so often as muscles can go into spasm after prolonged sitting. A simple exercise is to stand, place your hands on your lower back and bend backwards as far as possible. Do it for at least 10 repetitions as often as you can throughout the day”.
If you feel you have slouched a little, correct it immediately.
If you wish to, you could place a lumbar support pillow or even use a lumbar back brace to keep your back straight. (These are readily available online here)
The image below clearly demonstrates how you must sit when in front of a computer.
If you have a phone or wallet in your back pockets, take it out. Keeping it in there can lift up the buttock and make you twist your back to keep it straight.
This places undue strain on the lower back, leading to pain. Of course, this depends on the size of the wallet :-).
#2 Anxiety and Stress
This is yet another common problem we encounter.
Most software professional have service to deliver to their clients that are bound by deadlines. This means extremely long hours, with some even working 18 to 20 hours a day for weeks on end.
Well, all work and no play makes Jack an anxious and stressed out little fella.
In an article published in the journal Psychopathology, researchers found that individuals who were ‘addicted’ to the internet were more likely to develop depression. This depression is brought on by constant stress and anxiety.
The same applies to computer professionals.
In an Indian study of 129 IT professionals, researchers found that 51.2% were professionally stressed at the time of the study. 68.2% of this group were at risk of developing depression.
Depression can greatly affect quality of life. It also can have a negative impact on personal relationships as well.
Try your best to avoid computer work once you return home. In other words, keep your work at your work place.
Limit your use of the internet when at home. Instead, use the time to spend with family or take up a hobby.
Exercise is a great way to ward off stress. Running, swimming, cycling and other forms of cardiovascular exercise can give you a ‘high’ due to the release of endorphins. This can help battle depression.
Yoga and relaxation therapies are also an effective way to keep stress and anxiety levels low. The Pranayama is believed to be very helpful.
Interestingly, stress related health problems seem to be lesser in married individuals as compared to unmarried ones. It seems being married is a good avenue to vent out your frustrations with your better half!
Furthermore, single people tend to work overtime as well as there are no other family commitments.
Finally, know when to seek help. If you feel your stress is affecting you in the slightest way, make sure you visit a health care professional like your family doctor or a counselor. Talking to someone can really help.
#3 Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Chances are you have heard of this problem. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition where a nerve that passes through the wrist gets compressed due to constant but restricted movement of the wrist joint.
CTS, as it is sometimes called, can lead to tingling and numbness in the hands. It can slow down typing as pain can also set in.
CTS usually affects individuals between the age of 20 to 40 years. People who spend more than 12 hours a day typing are at a greater risk.
In a study conducted in Chennai in a similar group found the prevalence of the condition to be around 13%.
While the symptoms are mild to start off with, they eventually lead to pain and stiffness in the wrist. This makes movements such as typing and controlling the computer mouse difficult.
Exercising your wrists through stretches and bending can loosen up the tight tissues, improve blood flow and reduce pain and stiffness.
Keep your keyboard at a height where the elbow is at 90 degrees to the table. Keep your elbows close to your side. Keep your arms rested on the arm rest with your forearms parallel to the ground.
Using gel pads to support the base of your palm is okay for a short while, but not for long. The altered angle due to the gel pads can worsen CTS.
Adjust the position of your keyboard as well so that it is comfortable to type.
Finally, don’t sit and type for hours on end. Take short breaks in between and exercise the joints of your hand.
#4 Heart Disease
I have previously published a post on how sitting for long hours increases the risk of heart disease.
Sitting has been shown from clinical trials to increase your chances of heart disease, especially when you spend long hours of doing so.
Keep moving! Make sure you get up once every 15 to 20 minutes and go for a short wander around the office. You could even visit the sacred water cooler for a chat with your colleagues.
Once you finish work, indulge in a good exercise program. You could go for a walk or a jog or even hit the gym if you are a member.
Insomnia, or difficulty sleeping, is one of the common health problems seen in software professionals.
It mostly has to do with working odd hours, waking up at odd hours and losing your normal pattern of day to day activities due to work.
A study in Finland found that 16% of IT professionals who work late develop insomnia. Another study looking at 91 software engineers in India found that 35% of them had mild insomnia while 21% had severe insomnia.
Staring at a bright screen (be it your laptop or mobile) late into the night can alter the release of the sleep chemical melatonin. As time passes, the release of this hormone alters permanently, leading to chronic insomnia.
Don’t delay going to bed. When you plan to hit the sack, switch off your electronic devices, dim the lights and read a book if needed.
As time passes, your mind will get used to this, and you will eventually drift off into a deep sleep.
Some people may benefit from sleeping pills, but it is not recommended. Alternatively, melatonin supplements are now available that can help to an extent.
Ask you doctor about treatments for insomnia.
#6 Neck Pain
Staring at a computer screen can be a pain in the neck….eventually. Keeping your head in the same position for a number of hours can lead to stiffness of the muscles and constant neck pain.
The neck pain associated with constant computer and mobile phone use is well known. It is not just the staring at the screen for long hours that causes the problem; placing the phone in between your ears and your shoulder is also a trigger for neck problems.
In a study conducted in Loni, Maharashtra, 58% of the study subjects developed neck pain as a primary symptom (1).
In another study conducted in Chennai, neck pain was seen in 30% of the study population of IT professionals.
As previously mentioned, keep your chair adjusted in a way so that your computer screen is at the same level as your eyes.
If using a laptop, use adequate support to keep the computer elevated at eye level.
Avoid using mobile phones for long hours. If you do, use a hands free kit instead of holding onto the phone all the time.
As mentioned previously it is important to keep moving and avoid static postures. “Shrugging your shoulders and gently moving your neck keeps the blood circulating in the muscles”, says Reema.
#7 Visual Problems
IF you spend most of your time staring at a computer screen, the glare is likely to affect your eyes.
This could lead to a condition called computer vision syndrome. Some people call it digital eye strain.
Computer vision syndrome is an odd problem but is a common one that is characterised by dry eyes, red eyes, sensitivity to glare, pain around the eyes, headache and overall fatigue.
In the Loni, Maharashtra study, around 65.3% of the study population suffered from eye related symptoms. In other words, nearly 7 out of 10 people who spend 8 to 12 hours a day staring at a computer screen will develop eye problems.
Around 80% of individuals with eye problems hail from the IT profession, according to a report in Times of India.
Follow the Mayo Clinic 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes, look away from the computer screen at an object around 20 feet away for a duration of 20 seconds.
Using anti-glare screen covers can reduce eye strain significantly and reduce your chances of developing computer vision syndrome.
Avoid using your computer in a dark room. If you are concerned, make sure you see your eye doctor.
#8 Deep Vein Thrombosis
Deep vein thrombosis refers to a condition where blood clots form in the deeper veins in the legs. It is one of the unusual health problems in software professionals.
Imagine a drop of your blood falling onto a table. A short while later, if you leave the blood undisturbed, you will find that it has become a clot.
The same thing can happen in your legs. If blood does not flow actively from the legs back to the heart, it can form a clot.
The most common reason why this develops is immobility. In other words, sitting in once place for long hours increases your risk of clot formation in the veins in your legs.
It is similar to the blood clots that form in the leg if you travel by flight to a foreign country.
Venous thrombosis is lesser reported in literature, but is recognized as a problem.
According to a report in New Scientist, clot formation in the calf muscles in computer users is now called ‘e-thrombosis’. This term was coined after a computer enthusiast developed a clot that broke off and migrated to his lungs.
This is what the main concern is with blood clots. They can break, travel up the large veins and block the blood vessels in the lungs. This is called pulmonary embolism, and can be fatal.
Keep moving about. Don’t remain seated in one position all the time.
Every so often, take a short walk. This will get the blood moving from your leg back to your heart.
Your calf muscle acts like a ‘peripheral heart’. When you move, the muscle contracts and pushes the blood back to your heart.
The surfaces of keyboards are teeming with bacteria. When you use a keyboard that has been used by others, the tips of your fingers can pick up bacteria and viruses.
These organisms would have landed there when a person sneezes, coughs or even fails to wash their hands when needed.
These can lead to infections such as the common cold, flu and even chest infections.
An interesting study conducted in the University of Arizona found that shared keyboards have 400 times more bacteria than your average toilet seat. Women’s desks tend to harbor more bacteria than men’s.
Organisms such as Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) can last for up to 24 hours on keyboards. MRSA is a deadly organism.
Wash your hands before and after using a computer. Regular soap and water is sufficient. You don’t need an anti-bacterial soap.
If you can’t do so, use a good quality hand sanitiser (these are coming under a great deal of scrutiny off later, so it is better to wash your hands).
Use water or isopropyl alcohol to clean your computer regularly.
Software professionals and other professionals who spend a lot of time in front of computers are very prone t developing a number of health problems.
By taking the right steps, it is possible for them to avoid these health issues completely.
Here is a brief recap of a few points –
Most of the references to studies have been made through links within the page. Those that do not have linked have been mentioned below.
- Giri, Purushottam A., et al. “Computer related health problems among occupational computer users: A cross-sectional study.” Australasian Medical Journal 3.7 (2010): 429-30.