Mobile App Helps You Fight Chronic Pain From Your Desk

Experience chronic neck or back pain? Headaches or migraines? That expensive, ergonomic chair might be doing you more harm than good. But Voom, a mobile wellness app developed by two chiropractors, aims to tackle repetitive stress injuries.

Most office workers are well aware of the threat of carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive motion injuries. But what most don't know is that prolonged sitting can cause equally painful and disruptive repetitive strain disorders, including neck and back pain, headaches and migraines. And that ergonomic chair could be making it worse.

Musculoskelatal strains, and the accompanying neck, back and wrist pain, are the fastest-growing class of workman's compensation injury, and chiropractor Dr. Eric Soltanoff saw plenty of patients presenting with these types of symptoms over the last few years.

"My brother and I both are chiropractors, and we both noticed we were seeing a lot of folks with this similar neck pain and shoulder blade pain, with headaches, migraines, low-back pain issues," Soltanoff says.

Voom

"All of a sudden, once we looked at their professions, the common ground became obvious -- these are computer and technology workers that are sedentary. They all 'assumed the position:' slouched forward, dominant hand extended for the mouse, neck protruding forward and down, and they were sitting this way eight hours a day, 40 hours a week, sometimes for years. No wonder they're in pain," he says.

This type of repetitive stress injury is known as "insidious onset," in that there's no acute, one-time event that causes injury and pain as would happen in a slip-and-fall, or a lifting injury, Soltanoff says. The specific types of injuries Soltanoff was seeing were caused when muscle groups were taxed to the point of fatigue and then could no longer support the limbs and extremities they were supposed to, he says.

Once the cause of the problem was identified, Soltanoff and his brother set about to develop a solution, which they unveiled in 2011. Their mobile wellness application, now known as Voom, was released in its second generation form in October 2013, and is gaining ground in corporations across the United States, he says, buoyed by Center for Disease Control research showing that inactivity can cause chronic pain, injuries and disease, and can even contribute to premature mortality.

Comfortably Numb

The irony, Soltanoff says, is that many of the patients he saw were using ergonomic chairs to try and prevent repetitive motion injuries when, in fact, the chairs were making repetitive stress injuries worse while creating new problems.

"When they develop these ergonomic chairs that are supposed to prevent you from getting a repetitive motion injury, you are less likely to move. You sit longer, and that can actually be more destructive," Soltanoff says.

Voom is a wellness and activity program that takes you through two-minute sequences of "micro-moves" to combat the negative effects of prolonged periods of sitting, inactivity and repetitive tasks, Soltanoff says. These "micro-breaks" can be woven into the fabric of the users' day for minimal disruption and can be done at a workers' desk.

"The simple solution is to stop inactivity - that's what we're trying to do," Soltanoff says. "We've found through our own observations and user feedback that once an hour, for two minutes is the least disruptive and most effective. Every 30 minutes is too frequent, every two hours is not frequent enough."

Of course, the "simple" things are not always easy, he says, which is why the second generation of Voom includes features that can track users' progress, offer reminders and alarms, the capability to hit "snooze" if the time isn't convenient, Soltanoff says. Voom is currently available as an iOS app, and is also accessible through most common Web browsers, he says.

Another new aspect of the app is the "gamification," which can help motivate users by making the workouts competitive and fun, and include others in the process.

"We know most similar programs that address inactivity have less than a 10 percent user-engagement rate. Most people don't do them," Soltanoff says, "Because it's not fun, there's no competition or incentive. But with Voom, we're seeing now an 87 percent engagement rate since we added gameification."

Required Safety Equipment

Adoption of the Voom app may be driven by what seems at first to be an unlikely place, Soltanoff says; insurance companies. With workman's compensation claims rising because of increased repetitive stress injuries, many insurance companies might start pressuring businesses to implement solutions like Voom, or risk paying astronomically high premiums.

"The benefits to corporations and businesses are there," Soltanoff says. "If you can remove the cause for these injuries, inactivity, you'll see a decrease in workers comp claims, a decrease in absenteeism, and an increase in productivity and accuracy," he says, for less than $5.00 per month per employee.

Ultimately, Soltanoff hopes that Voom will become required "safety" equipment to prevent on-the-job injuries, and that inactivity will be considered as serious a health risk as smoking.

"The analogy is that you wouldn't send a builder to a construction site without a hard hat," Soltanoff says. "I hope that the same thing will happen with inactivity, and that people will help and encourage each other to be proactive about this so it changes the entire corporate culture," he says.

Sharon Florentine covers IT careers and data center topics for CIO.com. Follow Sharon on Twitter @MyShar0na. Email her at sflorentine@cio.com Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook.

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