Rules of Thumb Use

Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety
February 28, 2008
Written by Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety
Just about everywhere you look you will see people talking or texting on very small cell phones, busily typing messages with their thumbs on their handheld computers and personal organizers or scrolling through music on portable media players. As electronics get smaller, more portable and therefore more heavily used, we may be risking injury from overuse of wrists, fingers, and thumbs that we use to operate and type on these miniature keyboards. Repeating these tasks for hours at a time may cause painful repetitive strain injuries.

Although there are no national statistics on how many people suffer from these types of injuries, some ergonomic experts feel there is cause for concern given the number (tens of millions) of handheld electronic devices on the market, and the heavy, extended use of them. The American Society of Hand Therapists (ASHT) recently re-issued an alert to raise awareness of the potential risks. People who combine prolonged grips with repetitive motion on small buttons and awkward wrist movements are susceptible to carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis and other hand, wrist and arm ailments. It is important to take preventative measures. The ASHT released a list of guidelines and exercises to help users of portable electronics avoid these types of injuries.

Tips to help prevent injuries

  • Don't overdo it. Avoid overuse by taking a break every few minutes or switching to another activity. Stop using the device if you feel pain or discomfort. You can also give your hands a break by frequently switching hands, and by not always using the same finger or thumb to type, tap or scroll.
  • Use a neutral grip when holding the device. Keep your wrist straight, not bent in either direction.
  • Give your eyes a break by looking away from the screen and focusing on a distant object every few minutes.
  • Sit comfortably. Your chair should support your back and allow you to rest your feet comfortably on the floor. To avoid looking downward and straining your neck, place pillows in your lap and rest your arms on the pillows, or support the device on a desk or tabletop. Your arms should be supported.
  • Watch your posture. While focusing intently on handheld devices, people are often unaware that they are slouching or leaning in unnatural, uncomfortable ways. Be on the alert for discomfort, especially a feeling of poor circulation in the arms and hands.
  • Warm up the muscles in the thumbs, wrists and elbows to help reduce the risk of injury from using personal handheld devices. This should involve only gentle stretching, never pain.

Remember the rule of thumb - don't overuse it! Limit your usage of handheld devices and listen to your body. That stiffness and soreness is reminding you to vary your routine and avoid repeating the same motion over and over. With some simple changes you can be a comfortable and healthy user of handheld electronics.

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