Health Hazards for IT Workers: How Your Desk Wears You Down

Too much junk food, too little exercise and a 24/7 tether to technology? Your body ain't happy, friend. Let us count the pains.

Let's say you're a young IT manager, in your 20s, 30s or even early 40s. It's not unheard of for you to put in 10-hour workdays in front of your computer, or some other user's.

You try to eat something at least halfway healthy when you make it to the company cafeteria, but most days, you're crashing by 4 p.m., which means a trip to ye olde vending machine for a Jolt or a Snickers (or both). By 6 p.m., you're sprawled out all over your desk, ergonomics be damned, still typing furiously (and simultaneously) on your laptop and BlackBerry, wondering if you'll ever get out the door.

Weekends mean family obligations, household chores and a few hours stolen here and there to catch up on key projects from work. There's no time or energy for exercise more rigorous than mowing the lawn or riding bikes with the kids.

In your heart of hearts, you know the long days, heavy workload, poor eating, lack of exercise and cruddy posture add up to a pretty stressful work environment -- and that's before factoring in your boss's notoriously short temper. But hey, you're young, you can handle it, right?

Wrong.

Fat, sore and stressed

Keep it up another 10 years, and you could be looking at a host of ailments, from nagging aches and pains on up through serious, life-threatening conditions, according to a host of medical experts we spoke with.

The combination of a sedentary workday and poor eating habits can lead first and foremost to obesity, which can put your heart at risk and lead to a litany of other diseases. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, in 2005-2006 the prevalence of obesity among adult men was 33.3% and 35.3% among adult women.

Obesity, in turn, increases the risk for conditions like hypertension (high blood pressure), Type 2 diabetes, stroke, gallbladder disease, sleep apnea, respiratory problems, certain cancers and cardiovascular disease.

"A phenomenal amount of people die [every year] from cardiovascular disease, which is very preventable," says Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., and a staff nutritionist at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington-based nonprofit organization. Desk-bound workers are particularly at risk, she says. "If you have risk factors -- you're male, you're a person of increasing age, you lead a sedentary lifestyle and you're overweight -- you need to take control."

The office life is also hard on your muscles and skeleton, thanks to the prolonged computer use that's so common among IT workers. When the body is still, circulation slows, reducing the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles. This scenario, coupled with poor posture, can produce a number of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which manifest with pain, tingling, discomfort, numbness and swelling in the joints and muscles. Most are temporary, but others can be permanent.

Finally, work-related stress, while motivating in manageable doses, can grind down your health over time. Undue stress can lower your immune defenses, increase the risk of heart disease and bring on anxiety, depression and difficulty sleeping, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Scared yet? For more details, here's a head-to-toe look at the health dangers lurking for the typical IT desk jockey.

Eyes

The good news is there is no evidence that staring at a computer screen degrades your vision permanently. But short-term symptoms are common.

According to the American Optometric Association, people who use computers daily at work or at home could suffer from computer vision syndrome, which leaves them vulnerable to problems like dry eye, eyestrain, neck and backaches, light sensitivity and fatigue. Many of these symptoms result from poor workstation configuration and improper work habits, the AOA says.

The AOA's 2007 American Eye-Q survey reveals that 41% of Americans experienced eye strain after prolonged computer or handheld device use, while 45% cited neck or back pain. While many of these symptoms cease once the sufferer is off the computer, some people will continue to experience visual problems, such as blurred distance vision.

Altering viewing distance, changing the screen setup, ensuring proper lighting and monitoring the ergonomics of the desk environment can help. But taking frequent eye breaks is just as important. The AOA suggests practicing the "20/20" rule -- look away from the computer every 20 minutes for 20 seconds to minimize eye-focusing problems and irritation caused by infrequent blinking.

Mental health

Working 10-plus-hour days and maintaining a 24/7 umbilical cord to your BlackBerry amounts to some serious overstimulation for the brain. Without implementing a consistent exercise regimen to boost brain endorphins or allotting the proper downtime for mental relaxation, overworked IT professionals leave themselves vulnerable to increased stress.

During times of stress, the brain releases adrenaline and other hormones to heighten senses and boost strength. While experts consider the normal stress response healthy, chronic stress can harm the immune and cardiovascular systems, and increase vulnerability to heart disease, depression, exhaustion, sleep deprivation and overall malaise, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Undue stress can also trigger anxiety, which can cause its own set of physical and emotional symptoms, including abdominal pain, dizziness, muscle tension and headaches, decreased concentration, irritability and sexual problems. In an extreme form, anxiety can even increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, MSDs, psychological disorders, even suicide and some cancers, according to the International Labour Office's Encyclopaedia of Occupational Safety and Health (subscription required).

High levels of stress and anxiety can also provoke more minor conditions, such as hives, contact dermatitis, heart palpitations and headaches. It can also lead to mindless overeating, which, in turn, can lead to weight gain and its related medical risks.

"What leads to all this disease is trying to function at [a high] level, 24/7," says Howard Waldman, M.D., Ph.D., medical director of the cardiac catheterization lab at the North Shore Medical Center in Salem, Mass., and co-director of the center's Heart Center. "When your BlackBerry is buzzing and you have constant e-mail, it's a sickness."

Posture

Much progress has been made in the past decade in addressing carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive stress injuries through the use of ergonomic keyboards and computer stands. But less focus has been given to correcting how people sit in front of their screens all day, according to Brian McKeon, M.D., chief medical officer for the Boston Celtics and an orthopedist at the Boston Sports & Shoulder Center. Poor posture, coupled with the natural process of losing bone density and flexibility as we age, sets up a perfect storm for a host of back, neck and shoulders problems, such as rotator cuff disease, McKeon says.

And the increasing popularity of portable computers only compounds the problem, because "the design of laptops violates a basic ergonomic requirement for a computer, namely that the keyboard and screen [be] separated," according to the Cornell University Ergonomics Web, which recommends a host of posture-positive tips for laptop users.

Poor posture can lead as well to digestive problems such as indigestion and constipation, McKeon explains, as well as pulmonary disease as lungs become restricted, making it harder to breath. "Bad posture is something we don't take seriously -- most people don't see surgeons for these problems, and we just tend to neglect it," McKeon says. "If we treated posture aggressively from the outset, shoulder, elbow and hand injuries would dramatically decrease."

Back

Without the proper ergonomic setup, deskbound workers like IT professionals run the risk of back and spine injuries, McKeon says. Problems can include anything from cervical radiculopathy (a compression of the nerve roots in the neck) and bursitis of the shoulder on down to pulled or strained muscles, ligaments and tendons in the lower back.

Ironically, the risk of injury is actually compounded when a mostly sedentary worker makes an attempt at exercise. "The desk jockey realizes they've got to exercise so they do things like play tennis or do pushups, but those don't do anything for exercising their back muscles," McKeon says. "They set themselves up for muscle imbalances and can sometimes make things worse."

More than 1 million people lose time from work each year due to musculoskeletal disorders, which can be easily avoided with proper attention to workplace ergonomics and with regular exercise that includes back-strengthening routines, according to "Musculoskeletal Disorders and the Workplace," a report published by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

Arms, hands and elbows

There's been a decrease in the past five years in carpal tunnel syndrome, but there are still plenty of other prevalent repetitive stress ailments afflicting the hands, arms and elbows as a result of prolonged computer use.

Hand and wrist tendonitis, tenosynovitis (also known as DeQuervain's tendonitis) and ulnar nerve entrapment are just some conditions that could be in store for you if you spend too much time at the keyboard without a proper eye to ergonomics.

The text messaging and other handheld-based activities that IT professionals hold so dear make them more vulnerable to developing symptoms ranging from hand throbbing and swelling to tendonitis, according to the American Physical Therapy Association's Occupational Health Special Interest Group. When text messaging, people tend to tense their shoulders and upper arms, which cuts down circulation to the forearm at the time when the consistent movements of the thumb and fingers require increased blood flow, the APTA says. Also, because so many PDA users are middle-aged businesspeople, overuse can inflame underlying arthritis, further increasing the risk of injury.

There's a quality-of-work component to extremity injuries as well, according to the musculoskeletal report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine. "High job demands and high job stress are work-related psychosocial factors that are associated with the occurrence of upper extremity disorders," the report notes. In other words, somewhere down the line, you're potentially going to feel that stressful job in your hands, wrists, elbows, arms or shoulders.

To cut short that damage before it happens, check out recommendations for a more ergonomic workstation setup from the Occupational Health & Safety Administration.

Heart

Nearly one in three adult males in the U.S. has some form of cardiovascular disease (CVD), which is the single leading cause of death of American men, according to the American Heart Association.

Statistics published on the AHA site show that the lifetime risk of developing cardiovascular heart disease after age 40 is 49% in men and 32% in women. Besides heart attack, CVD can lead to other cardiac-related events such as angina, stroke, high blood pressure and peripheral vascular disease.

While some of the risk factors that contribute to that risk for cardiovascular disease -- such as age, sex and genetics -- are beyond an individual's control, behaviors like smoking, exercise and diet have a significant impact on increasing or decreasing a person's risk profile.

The first step in the battle is to know your risk factors, says the North Shore Medical Center's Dr. Waldman. "People, by age 40 or so, should know what their lipid profile is," he says. "Awareness sometimes ignites change, and people may start to make better choices."

Gut

Over the years, a lifestyle of poor food choices and lack of exercise pretty much guarantees weight gain and loss of muscle mass. And IT workers in particular are at risk of gaining weight.

According to a May 2008 CareerBuilder.com survey of approximately 7,700 employees, 34% of respondents who identified themselves as IT workers said they had gained more than 10 pounds in their current job, and 17% had packed on more than 20 pounds. While IT workers' weight gain was less than those in financial services and government, it was still above the average, for all workers who took the online survey, where 26% said they had gained 10 pounds and 12% had gained 20 or more.

The same survey showed that a mere 9% of all workers head out to the gym during lunch breaks to work off those calorie-laden restaurant lunches (38% eat out twice or more per week) or frequent snacks (66% of those surveyed snacked once a day, with nearly 25% indulging twice a day or more).

Weight gain, particularly when around the middle, where it tends to collect in middle age, has been directly linked to metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors that increase propensity for heart diseases and diabetes, among other problems. Diabetes, in turn, opens the door to a host of other issues, including blindness, sores that don't heal and more serious maladies. Type 2 diabetes occurs most frequently in people who are 45 or older and overweight, according to the American Heart Association.

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