Monday, 16 July 2012

What a pain in the neck!

Who out there has ever experienced a pain in the neck? No, I don't mean the tight muscles that would love to be massaged; I mean pain that results in crying out in pain with certain movements, difficulty sleeping due to not being able to lie down without getting sharp pains, and having to turn your whole body side to side when talking to people next to you because it's too painful to turn your head.

For the first time in my life, I felt this pain last week. I couldn't even pinpoint what had caused it - I was on holidays, on a cruise, and hadn't handled my heavy suitcase for a few days. The only thing I think it could have been was a gradual onset, leading to an acute episode of pain from carrying a satchel style camera bag with a heavy SLR camera for hours on end while exploring gorgeous European cities. 

The pain was terrible. It was limiting. It hurt. And it got me thinking...

In today's society, how much strain do we place on our necks each day? Let's look at a few possible causes:

  • Mobile phones: While they used to be used for making phone calls, and then the introduction of sms in the late 1990's, they are now seemingly permanently attached to our hands at any appropriate (and often inappropriate) moments. Neck flexion often begins first thing in the morning when we reach out to pick up our phones from our bedside tables to check what has been happening with our friends and in the world during the past 7 - 8 hours as we slumbered. The neck flexion may continue through breakfast and I've even heard of people who put their phones in zip-lock plastic bags to use whilst in the shower!! Waiting for, and then catching the train or bus to school or work brings forth more neck flexion while our thumbs tap and slide across the little screens. Sneaky phone checks at work are often done by reaching across the desk to open the top drawer. Then more phone checks at lunch, and repeat the same pattern on the way home.. with final checks before going to bed.
  • Computer screens: As much as I used to despise this phrase when one of my earliest managers would  say it to me, "You just don't know what you don't know". How many people really know what height their monitor should be? Based on the people I've seen during the hundreds of ergonomic assessments I've done, sadly not all that many. So often, they are positioned too low, too high, too far or too close to be comfortable. So here it is, the magic formula:
Eye level to be in top 1/3 of screen
Centred to user and keyboard
Distance from user:
Approximately an arm's length from user

  • Handbags: Most of the time, they are just plain too full and much too heavy, and result in pressure on one side of the neck! It's worth doing at least a fortnightly spring clean of bags, which means everything comes out and only essential items go back in. Do you really need the 1L bottle of water while getting to and from work? How about leaving it at work, and using a 500ml or smaller bottle during travelling time to keep hydrated? Or for those of you who just have to carry lots of things to and from work, including laptop, iPad, files etc., how about considering a trolley bag? They don't have to be bulky or ugly, there are some really nice ones on the market. And yes, you will have to carry the bag up and down stairs, but think of all the in-between times when you can just roll it behind you! There are alternatives to having red strap marks on your shoulders from the pressure and weight of the  bag. 
I'll leave it there, but there are so many other possible causes.. craning neck when driving, not using good manual handling technique when reaching down to pick up kids off the floor.. I could go on and on.. but I won't. This time. 

The key to avoiding such neck pain is by ensuring your environment is correctly and safely set up around you, so that it isn't even an option to get it wrong. Limit phone use, position your monitor correctly, lighten up the load in your handbag.. and yes, I should have used a camera backpack to evenly distribute the load. Lesson learnt. 

Until next time! 

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