Mobile Ergonomics, Because Sitting Right is Not Enough

BreakingModern — Heard of De Quiervain Syndrome? Well, keeping texting with your thumb, and you may — and you won’t like it.

For decades the preaching of office ergonomics was a way to keep office workers productive in their chairs — in the face of growing concern that keeping them in their chairs was wrecking their health through imposed sedentariness. Then mobile devices came along, with the promise of a brave new world in which office work could be done during the breaks at yoga class, etc.

As if.

Most office workers remain stuck in an environment where the first priority is to appear dutiful while sitting at their desks, so the primary purpose of their mobile devices is to demonstrate fealty to the boss while out of the boss’s sight. Any improvement in ergonomics is therefore accidental.

Mobile Ergonomics

Mobile Ergonomics, Not Exactly Working

In fact, mobile devices come with their own baggage. Consider these conditions:

De Quiervain Syndrome is inflammation of the fluid-filled sheath that surrounds the two tendons that control the thumb. Also called BlackBerry thumb, washerwoman’s sprain, gamer’s thumb or radial styloid tenosynovitis, it’s a repetitive-strain injury that results from typing on a smartphone or pad (or moving a game controller) with the thumb. Frankly, the thumb’s agility just ain’t there (hence the phrase, “he’s all thumbs”) and there’s a limit to what you can ask of it. There are various treatments for the resulting pain, swelling and stiffness, especially the old-school “stop doing that.”

Common Causes and Issues

iPad neck is painful neck and shoulder strain caused by remaining hunched over an iPad while reading it for extended periods with the device flat on a desk, as if it were a book. If you were reading an actual book you might also be hunched over it, but you would flex yourself periodically in order to turn the pages. With an iPad you can turn the pages by pressing down with a finger, so you may as well have been mummified in that hunched position. To avoid the resulting strain, you might consider, well, stop doing that. Or you might consider propping the iPad upright so that you can read it with a straight neck.

Melatonin suppression is a condition that results from staring at the brightly lit screen of an iPad or similar device, which is what you are also doing if you are hunched over it, reading. Two hours of exposure will cut the body’s production of the sleep-aid chemical, making it harder to get to sleep. So don’t do it before bedtime, or turn the light down. (TVs and CRTs do not have the same impact, since people do not stare at them from inches away.)

Touchpad Finger Syndrome follows from the previously unappreciated fact that banging your fingers against a sheet of glass all day will result in sore fingertips. The spring-loaded keys on a keypad cushion the impact of the fingertips while typing, while the touch-sensitive screen of a mobile device does not. Yes, in this case new technology has led to a dramatic step backward in ergonomics. For one-word responses to cat videos, the touchpad is fine. If you are pounding out The Great American Novel, get a real keyboard.

“Laptop ergonomics,” meanwhile, is an oxymoron, since there is no way to adjust the distance between the keyboard and the screen. That may be the price you have to pay to look busy in an airport lounge, but at the office there is no excuse. There you can use LCD monitor arms, which can hold the laptop in an elevated position. The laptop’s screen can be used as the system display while an add-on keyboard and mouse can be used on the desk.

Actually, now that we’re talking about the desktop, let’s review what they told you in grade school: sit up. The knees, hips and elbows should be at 90-degree angles. Keep the keyboard flat on the desk — those feet on the back are as useless as tailfins on a Chevy. But go ahead and fidget, cross and uncross your legs, etc. In fact, hop up and do something at intervals — anything but sit rigidly for eight hours.

Basically, if doing anything is uncomfortable, stop doing it. Just because you’re working does not mean you’re supposed to be suffering. Uncomfortable people are not productive.

For BMod, I’m .

Image credit: By Alton (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Header image credit: By BuzzFarmers from Providence & Tampa (On the phone. Uploaded by JohnnyMrNinja) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Lamont Wood

Author: Lamont Wood

Based in San Antonio, Texas, Lamont Wood is a senior editor at He’s been covering tech trade and mainstream publications for almost three decades now, and he’s a household name in Hong Kong and China. His tech reporting has appeared in innumerable tech journals, including the original BYTE (est. 1975). Follow @LAMONTwood on Twitter.

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