Ergonomics for the Computer Musician
Hey everyone! It has been a while and although I realize this may not be a topic you’ll find on too many music blogs, I think the information I’m about to present is quite pertinent to the computer musician. Yep, its true, we’re really going to talk about ergonomics. Well, maybe not quite ergonomics, but some ‘best practices’ that will help you keep making tunes for a long time to come.
Why am I getting into this anyway and what makes me any kind of authority? I’m certainly no authority but, believe it or not, I deal with RSI on a daily basis. RSI or a repetitive stress injury is what us computer people get to deal with if we don’t take adequate care of ourselves. These types of injuries are also known as ‘overuse injuries’, it sort of depends on who you talk to. RSI is something that takes years to develop and you’ve got to have some fairly bad habits. My habits were pretty bad; I’m a software engineer by day and I do music at night. If I’m producing at a computer at night some days I can spend 12 to 16 hours in front of a computer. Typing, mousing, clicking, playing on my midi keyboard. That’s just the start; if you play an instrument, like I do, just add more stress to your poor old wrists. Let’s face it, our bodies just weren’t designed to take this kind of punishment.
Luckily I work for a company that takes RSI very seriously. Due to their investment (well, more like their workman’s comp insurance), I’ve come to learn a whole lot about taking care of myself. Its a life-style; you really have to think about a large number of things you are doing in order to make change. And hell, change can be really slow. If you are reading this rubbing the back of your neck wishing your wrists didn’t hurt.. well, you have your work cut out for you.
RSI vs Carpel Tunnel
Most people mistake overuse injuries for carpel tunnel. While related they aren’t quite the same things, although both result from bad practices. Hell, I’m going to save my wrists as someone has said it better already. From a quick google search on RSI vs Carpel Tunnel (from http://www.rsi-relief.com/2009/03/are-rsi-and-carpal-tunnel-the-same-thing/):
“Repetitive Stress Injuries are complications that occur when a large amount of stress is experienced in a certain area of the body. The stress that is most common in this type of situation is the type that occurs over and over again on a consistent basis. There are several different types of RSI. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is just one type of injury that may be experienced when an individual suffers from injuries that are due to stress injuries that are repetitive in nature.”
Basically Carpel Tunnel is one specific type of RSI. It means you are screwing with this nerve that runs through your wrist. If you are bending your wrists at 90 degrees all day long you’ll end up with something specific like Carpel Tunnel, but for many of us experiencing problems it may not be Carpel Tunnel but something else entirely. Its important to make this distinction before you run around the net looking for things you can do to ease your ‘carpel tunnel’, a common misconception I hear from people experiencing hand related issues. Carpel tunnel may be your issue, or it may be something else entirely; something worth keeping in mind.
The Problem For Many
For the average joe problems arise from a couple issues. The first is that those of us highly engaged in what we’re doing may not move around very often. I’m not talking about moving the mouse. I’m talking about moving our whole body. When we don’t move around much all kinds of bad things can happen. Our nerves may be reluctant to adjust correctly, our muscles may get tight or imbalanced, or worse, awful things like atrophy can result.
The second thing that seems to creep up in a number of cases is that we beat the hell out of some muscles while never touching others. What do I mean? You are looking at this article on your computer monitor right? Is the article directly in front of you or a little to the left? If the article is to the left, is your neck turning to the left? You do that enough times through out the day and your neck starts to get a little warped. Muscles on one side get strong, other muscles get weak. Muscles may get overly tired and lock up entirely (mmmm spasms).
Many people associate ergonomics with keyboards and mice, things related specifically to the hands and wrists. While these are important things to note, your neck and shoulders can get equally beat up if not worse, depending on what bad habits you have. To make life even more fun everything in your body is connected to something else. Nerves travel through your neck, through your chest, down your arms and into your hands. You may be experiencing awful hand problems and these may be a direct result of issues with your neck (this was the case for me). Finding out specifically what’s going on really takes a specialist, but now you know to look for one.
Commonality Among the Broken
There are some things that seem more common given my experience, these are issues with tight chests, tired necks, and over-used arms/wrists/shoulders. Let’s talk about these with the understanding that you may not have this problem, but hey, information is power… right?
Are you sitting down right now? One of the first interesting things I learned in my quest was what happens to one’s body when they are sitting. Its common for chest and abdomen muscles to be contracted when in a sitting position. This is just the nature of sitting down. While you are sitting these muscles end up getting over used and very tight. On the contrary, the muscles in your back can end up weak and under used. This results in musculature balance issues that can cause a lot of pain in your body. Just some simple stretching and moving around can change your world.
Also related to posture, there’s another factor a lot of people don’t think about until its too late. How much are you using your neck when you are working? Are you constantly looking left and right? Are you using your eyes to look around or your neck? Are you leaning forward because things are too difficult to see? Are you spending a lot of time looking up, or down? All of these things can contribute to neck over-use. Think about how you are using your neck when you are using your computer.
Most people already have some idea about this part of the body as it seems to take the limelight for ergonomics issues. Part of wrist abuse has to do with your keyboard, but what about your mouse? Do you have to use your mouse for most things? That’s a lot of strain on your shoulders. What about your arms? Are they supported well or are you holding your arms up while you type? What is your workflow and how does it involve your body?
There is, of course, so much more to this discussion, but my goal here is just to get you thinking about your body. There’s how you sit, how high, where your legs are positioned.. you name it, and there’s a way your body wants to work and needs to be supported in order to do the least amount of damage to it. When you sit down and start working next, start paying attention to your body. Listen to your body, it will tell you where its being overused. And finally, everyone is different. There’s no way I can write a dissertation on all problems people can experience, but a lot of folks I know in the software industry have similar issues.
General Tips for Managing Your Body
Luckily there are some things that everyone can do regardless of what their problem is. Of course, if you are in dire straights, see a doctor. For those of you looking for ideas on how to change here’s a bulleted list in no particular order…
- Move around at least once an hour – yep, get the fuck out of your chair and walk around for 5 minutes. Your body will thank you immensely for this new habit
- Your body likes to do different things – are all your hobbies computer related? Do they all involve the use of your hands? Try to mix it up and find some other things to do here and there. My hands-free-hobby is improv.
- Stretch – if you end up in any sort of treatment this is the first thing they make you do. Stretch. Do it every day if you can, sometimes twice a day. Remember those old exercises from PE class? Some of them are still quite valid. Now given your ailments there are certain stretches that may/may not work for you. It takes time to figure all of these out and a physical therapist can help you identify them. I’ll write down some stretches I like in a section below.
- Don’t over-do it — its easy to get motivated and decide to start hitting the gym every day. If you are on your way to broken that may be too much for you and you can end up causing more harm than good.
- Position windows/applications in front of you – Think about it, if you are staring at something all day you shouldn’t have to do any work to stare at it. Put that Synthesizer VST right in the middle of the screen when you are going to tweak it for a long time. Put windows you need access to less to the sides.
- Turn your body, not your neck – Got a swivel chair? You can turn your body too, not just your neck. Distribute your load. You can twist your body too, get those latissimus dorsi moving.
- Get your eyes checked – You’re getting older, when was the last time you had your vision checked? If your vision isn’t as good as it used to be your body may be compensating (i.e. leaning forward) causing you unnecessary physical stress.
- Be creative – not all solutions require expensive ergonomic devices. Use old books to lift your keyboard to a more accessible height; consider alternative input devices to the mouse – the sky’s the limit.
- Try standing up – Body’s hate to be in the same position all the time. How can you work in different positions? What about getting a tall stand for a synthesizer you like to use? You can work standing up at your synth for 30 minutes and sit down for 30 minutes while you edit MIDI with your mouse. If you are super fancy you can get an electrolift desk. What about building a standing desk that you can move your laptop to when your body gets tired of sitting? I alternate between sitting and standing while working throughout the day and it makes a huge difference. Don’t over do it though, your knees can burn out too 😉
Take it or leave it – like any idea its up to you to choose what and how to implement. For me I did all of these things and much more. I suppose I’d like to keep this article’s length reasonably human, so I’ll stop there.
I do a lot of stretches but there are 3 or 4 I do that I find really make a difference:
- Child’s pose
- Foam Roller stretches (this link contains a few, my favorite is to just lay on the roller, spine aligned.)
- Abdominal Ball stretch (this link is to a blog, scroll down to get to the stretches)
Of course there’s a million more, but this should help get you started.
The fact is, if you do this long enough, you’re going to break yourself so take care of yourself. This is such a deep topic I can’t even begin to do it justice, my hope is that you will at least think about your back pain a little differently moving forward. Its when you ignore that pain and keep going that you can end up really fucking yourself. Take heed my friends.
See you next time for something much more musical…