If you work a desk job, at some point you’ve probably heard that sitting at your computer for long hours poses some kind of danger to your health. But what are the real risks, and is there any inherent danger in working at a computer? Dr. Hugh Hagan, III, Section Chief for Orthopaedic Hand Surgery at Carilion Clinic’s Institute or Orthopaedics and Neurosciences, helps separate fact from fiction regarding this modern-day wives tale.

“There is nothing inherently evil about a computer. Computers don’t cause carpal tunnel or arthritis,” says Dr. Hagan. “However, there are general recommendations for any job that requires sedentary posture or repetition of tasks that can help people avoid complications.”

First, the general rule for people who sit at a desk is to get up and move around every 90 to 120 minutes. Losing yourself in hours of work without taking any breaks can increase your risk for various issues.

The next step is to ensure you have proper posture while you work. If you work at a desk, sit upright with your knees flexed. Make sure your legs are not dangling and your back is not arched—both of these can lead to stiffness and pain. Proper posture also includes ensuring your wrists are not strained while you type. If your current desk setup leaves your wrists strained, there are plenty of ergonomic wrist support products available that can help alleviate the strain.

“It’s important to avoid straining your wrists or digging your elbows into the arms of your chair, as these habits can irritate the nerves around those areas and cause problems,” says Dr. Hagan.

Your neck position is another crucial aspect of proper posture. You should be looking squarely at your computer screen, not up or down. Straining your neck either up or down can lead to tightening of the ligaments of the neck, which then leads to nerve irritation.

Another option for those who can’t seem to maintain good posture at the computer is a standing desk. A comfortable standing posture on a supportive surface can alleviate the various issues people encounter with sitting for long hours. As with sitting, you will still need to maintain comfortable wrist and neck positions to avoid irritation.
But what if you have already developed some issues from working at your computer? These problems can often be corrected simply by altering your workstation and getting into the habit of taking breaks to stretch and move around. If you have developed a more serious condition like carpal tunnel or arthritis, seeing an orthopaedic specialist to have it addressed is a wise course of action, along with correcting your posture at your workstation.

“For someone who has already developed arthritis or other issues, improper biomechanics will just further aggravate the problem,” says Dr. Hagan.

So does sitting at a computer all day cause injuries? The answer seems to be “not necessarily.” Nerve irritation and injuries can happen, but they don’t just occur because you work at a computer. If you are conscious about your posture and remember to give your body frequent breaks from your sedentary tasks, you are at no more risk for developing complications than anyone else.

By Chelsea Sherman