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Don't let work erode your health

Modern technology can be a timesaver at work, but bad usage habits can cause long-term health problems such as repetitive strain injuries. Here's how to avoid them.

The modern office might feature increasingly sophisticated technology, but that doesn't necessarily make for a healthy working environment.

A recent study from the UK Chartered Society of Physiotherapists (CSP) reported a rise in the number of office workers being treated for muscular skeletal disorders (MSD). Spine and disc problems, carpal tunnel (wrist muscle) syndrome, and neck and shoulder strain are on the increase - with 46 per cent of employees claiming to experience pain resulting directly from their jobs - despite campaigns for a more ergonomic approach to work.

"The underlying cause seems to be the long-hours culture and the fact that even when we're out of the office we don't stop working," suggests Sammy Margo, a therapist with the CSP. The issue may be particularly acute among those working in the Emirates, where long hours coupled with stifling outdoor summer temperatures prevent staff taking the rest breaks the experts recommend. One study put the number of workers in the Middle East suffering with repetitive strain injuries (RSI) as high as 68 per cent - while a 2010 survey by YouGov Siraj revealed that 65 per cent of stressed-out UAE residents cited increased workloads as the cause of their ill-health.

And while many workers may have been encouraged to step away from their desk at least, the alternative methods of working come with their own unique risks too. "It's not just desktop PCs and laptops but also Blackberry devices, palm computers and iPhones that require extensive use of small muscles of the hand, which will fatigue more quickly," warns Pauline Cole, an executive therapist with the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Occupational Health and Ergonomics.

As a society, our compulsion to text, share, poke and tweet could also have long-term health implications. "Most people are aware of the dangers of sitting at a PC all day, but awareness when it comes to texting using small keyboards is sorely lacking," says Ewa Gustafsson, an ergonomist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. "Heavy texters should use both thumbs to avoid pain in the hand, arm or neck - also sit upright, with support for both back and forearms, while texting, and vary your posture."

Even when we use our mobile communication gadgets for their primary function, to talk as we walk, we're putting our health at risk. Dr Paul Hodges, a specialist in spine disorders at Queensland University, Australia, has found that talking on a mobile phone while walking upsets the body's natural shock-absorption system. "Breathing affects the way the spine is supported by trunk muscles - but, talking at the same time as you're walking can force your breathing out of synch, causing jolts to register on the spine," warns Hodges.

Sammy Margo suggests that the solution to stopping technology from crippling us is to work smarter. "With so many of us teleworking these days, the emphasis should be on examining how we can work on the move without incurring problems," says Margo. "I've been treating a client with tendon strain caused by overuse of the e-mail and text-messaging options on their Blackberry. He's since changed his ways by using the technology more wisely. Now he just responds with one-word answers to e-mails and uses voice-recognition software to dictate instead of typing documents."

Margo suggests that people adopt strategies when using devices such as iPads that will minimise the strain they put on their bodies - such as spending a block of time reading and then another block of time typing when they can sit correctly and use a desk or proper support.

"These gadgets are great," he says. They've changed the way we live, but it's happened so fast that we haven't focused on how we use them and the knock-on effects they have on our physiology."

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