Weekly check up: Computer overuse

It’s 5 a.m. and you’ve spent the night staring at your blank computer screen trying to get a paper done. You make it through the night and even hand your paper in on time, but then it strikes – muscle pains, neck cramps and a splitting headache. The reason could be your computer.

Susan Haney, clinical program coordinator for Student Health Services, said students are especially susceptible to computer overuse and its related injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, nearsightedness, lower back pains, tennis elbow and blurred vision.

Computers are a part of every day life, and students are highly dependent on their machines for research, assignments and social networking. Logging several hours in front of the screen each day, students may overlook the consequences.

“Students are encouraged to be on the computer for a lot of reasons, but they are often on for longer than it’s healthy,” Haney said.

Working at a computer can be physically harmful if your body isn’t in the right position. If the monitor isn’t at eye level, the desk too high or low for your height, there’s bad lighting or you’re sitting in an uncomfortable chair, there’s a good chance you might strain your muscles and feel the effects later.

Haney said Student Health sees several students each week complaining of physical discomforts that could be related to computer overuse, but they often don’t realize their computer habits could be the culprit.

“Repetitive positions can give people pain in their muscles,” she said. “Computer overuse isn’t life-threatening, but people can become uncomfortable.”

But don’t worry, there are things to do that can help. Setting up your desk correctly, or “ergonomically” as the doctors like to say, is the first step towards preventing unwanted pains.

The monitor should be situated straight ahead and your legs should be resting at a 90-degree angle to the floor. To prevent carpal tunnel syndrome, a common computer related injury, your keyboard height should allow your wrists to extend slightly upwards, and not be flexed down.

And if your pockets go deep enough to really get into ergonomics, there are special computer accessories available to ease the muscle pain, such as foam pads, angled keyboards and a mouse with a tracking ball moved by the finger to give the wrists a rest.

But the injuries related to computer overuse aren’t limited to inconvenient physical pains. Haney said new research shows that some people suffer from loneliness, isolation and depression when they spend too much time on their PCs.

“Imagine you have a student who is really shy in college. You can stay on the computer all day long … rather than doing other things like socializing or getting involved in activities on campus,” she said.

According to a study on Internet use among college students, published by Keith J. Anderson from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., students run the risk of becoming detached.

“Students developing Internet relationships … may be replacing their real life relationships with others that are, or become, less fulfilling,” the study found.

The worst part – Anderson’s study said, “It appears that the college population is one that could be more susceptible to overusing or becoming dependent on the Internet.”

-Marissa Levy and Katie Rooney

“Weekly Check up” is a regular feature in the Life section. If you have a health topic you want to know more about, e-mail features@gwhatchet.com.

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