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Danger Ahead

Don't let your computer be a pain in your life

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Allow me to whine. Not about the digital divide, or censorship, or even The Gazette. This one's about the pain in my neck. And my arms, back and hips.

A high-tech decade just caught up with me. A week ago, I was diagnosed with having an advanced case of repetitive strain injury. Trust me, this is real and debilitating; please read on.

I ignored the warning signs for, literally, years. Since I first started using a little Mac Plus 11 years ago, I've often had splitting pain in my left shoulder blade. But that was the cost of doing my business, I thought.

I never slowed down in response to the growing pain. And until three years ago, when a wise computer user joined my life, I never, ever thought about ergonomics. I was too cool, and too AAA driven, to worry about things like chairs and sitting up straight. That shit's for geeks, I thought.

But the pain had gotten so intense in that shoulder that I wanted to reach around and pull the hunting knife from my back. Of course, I couldn't. Instead, the wiser partner suggested I move my computer and get a better desk chair. Although I'm tall, I was sitting -- often for 12 hours or more a day -- on a flimsy wooden chair, reading up to my keyboard. And my monitor was in the corner of my desk. I had to turn my head to the left to look at it. He told me that setup was like driving for 10 hours with my head looking out the window. Point taken.

Once I improved my setup, the pain eased dramatically -- temporarily. I thought I had it conquered; I'd fixed my ergonomics. Well. It's not that easy. Last week, when I told my new doctor -- an RSI specialist who thankfully doesn't believe in drugging and surgery to ease pain -- that I average probably 10 hours a day at a computer, his face told me it was time to pay the piper.

It seems I had pushed my body so hard that my arms are now so weak that I can barely open doors on my own. My partner is carrying my shopping bags for me. I get winded by one flight of stairs. I have trouble lifting myself out of bed in the morning. Apparently, a good case of RSI not only hurts; it causes chronic fatigue and weakness. Who knew?

I don't want your sympathy: With the help of my groovy physical therapist, an acupressure-massage therapist, the right exercise and a new attitude, I'll beat it. But I do want your attention, especially if you think you're too cool for ergonomics or that RSI is imagined. And if you're an employer who provides crappy chairs and desk setups for your workers, I really want your ear.

Alert your neighbors: RSI is real, and it's serious. Today, this second, check your work setup, move your computer, support your lower back. Get up every half an hour and stretch for a minute or two. Walk a lot. And if you have any back or arm pain, figure out how to fix it before it gets chronic or you lose the use of your hands (a sobering thought for a writer).

They tell me the road to recovery may be long. That doesn't make me happy: I have stories to tell, wrongs to right, governments and tech companies to rile up. And I'm not about to give up my computer as one of my favorite tools for discovery and creation. But, I now fully appreciate the importance of balance: work and rest, sitting and moving, computers and other tools. And should I forget, a sharp pain in my neck will act as an alarm.

It's time to add a little yin to my yang. Please do the same.

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