Medical experts warn that overuse of digital tools, or using them in ways that put undue pressure on the body, may be harmful to your health over the long term. Everything from vision, ease of motion, posture and even your emotional state can be negatively affected, with symptoms ranging from temporary to chronic.
One of the first steps in addressing the issue is to take note of the warning signs.
“If you have pain [from using a digital tool] lasting into the next business day, it usually indicates you are on a downhill slide,” says Maureen Dwight, registered physiotherapist and founder of the Orthopaedic Therapy Clinic in Toronto. She notes that if you feel continuous or recurring pain caused by overuse of digital tools, you should consult a doctor. Serious injuries can take three months of treatment, she notes, while chronic cases can take a year.
The most common tech-related ailment is tendinitis, defined as pain caused by over-working ligaments. For example, “texting thumb” results from repeatedly tapping your thumb when using a smartphone. Likewise, “typing elbow” is inflammation of the elbow joints caused by repetitive typing on a keyboard. Carpal tunnel syndrome, which is inflammation of the bundle of bones, tendons, tissues and nerves that run to your fingers through your wrist, can cause severe discomfort; symptoms include tingling, burning, numbness, weakened grip and pain that can extend from your fingers to your shoulder – frequently at night. In addition, neck, shoulder and back strains often are caused by sitting off-centre before a screen, as well as poor keyboard placement.
Being mindful of overdoing it when working long hours; taking appropriate precautions usually mitigates symptoms. However, if your symptoms become chronic, you may need intervention by doctors or specialized therapists. In the most extreme cases, surgery may be required. These services usually are covered by private health plans, but may not be covered under government plans.
“People can spend eight hours a day at work on their computers [and] constantly use their phones in transit, then spend their evenings looking at tablets or laptops,” says Deborah Wright, first vice chairwoman, B.C., with the Canadian Chiropractic Association in Courtney, B.C. She estimates that technology-related injuries now make up 60% of her practice, which is a considerably higher rate than when she began her practice 16 years ago. “We have become such a sedentary society,” Wright says. “We need to learn how to move more.”
In other words, too much sitting can be catastrophic for your health. Sedentary lifestyles are linked to obesity, diabetes and heart disease, among a growing list of life-threatening ailments. To reduce the impact of sitting for long hours, set up your desk and chair in your workspace properly. A physiotherapist can explain the best postures for you. Correct posture aligns your skeleton in a way that will reduce the likelihood of injury. Take five- to 10-minute breaks every hour or two to stretch and walk, Dwight advises.
Doing so can also help your eyes. “Nothing drives position more than vision,” says Dr. Christine Law, assistant professor in the ophthalmology department at Queen’s University School of Medicine in Kingston, Ont. Proper ergonomic setup of your work area helps avoid numerous ailments, including eye fatigue and headaches, she says. Sitting too far away or too close may cause you to squint or force you to lean toward or away from your computer screen, thus misaligning your posture.
“Remember the 20/20/20 rule,” says Law: take a break every 20 minutes or so, and look at least 20 feet away from your screen for 20 seconds. This causes your eyes to refocus, which has a recuperative effect. You also blink less often when viewing computer screens, so your eyes dry out. Consciously blinking more often and using eye drops can help.