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The mouse is biting some PC users

9 December 08 00:22 GMT

By Tania Teixeira
BBC News

As the computer mouse celebrates 40 years since its first public appearance, its role in every day routine has become widespread.

The humble mouse gave people a way to interact with their computers - both at home and at work.

What started off as a wooden shell with two metal wheels is now standard office equipment alongside the keyboard.

But this device is part of a rising problem costing the UK economy £300m a year in lost working time, sick pay and administration.

Office workers using computers constantly are at risk from repetitive strain injury (RSI), more recently known as non-specific arm pain (NSAP).

Report early

This is a collection of symptoms covering work-related upper limb problems, which can affect the hands, wrists, necks, arms and upper back.

There were 115,000 new cases last year, up from 86,000 the previous year, according to statistics by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

"I have noticed an increase on people with upper limb problems," said Pauline Cole, a spokesperson for the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Occupational Health and Ergonomics (ACPOHE).

"A lot of people are using computers more, even in jobs you wouldn't traditionally expect it," she added.

She believes reporting aches and pains early on is key because the condition is much easier to treat if treated from the start.

'Crunching feeling'

But back in 1991, Sonia Job was not aware that spending long periods of time in front of a machine was causing her health problems.

"It started off with pains on my neck and right shoulder blade. Sometimes I can't move my neck to the left or right, and I can't put my chin down to my chest" she said.

The "crunching feeling" at the top of her back only got worse as she continued physically overstretching herself when writing emails and putting together spreadsheets at work.

These days the pain can prevent her from driving a car and it makes every day tasks like doing the washing up difficult.

"Make sure you feel really comfortable and listen to your body. Do something about the problem rather than allowing it to get worse," she advised.

Regular breaks

Physiotherapist Pauline Cole recommended taking regular breaks away from the computer, rotating tasks, taking care with posture, and using a headset to type while on the phone.

Individual assessments should be provided by employers for each staff member and reasonable adjustments made to meet their needs.

People working at a number of different desks, for instance in call centres, would benefit from adjustable office equipment such as computer screens and chairs.

Regular breaks and access to occupational health specialists should also be given to all employees.

However, there are concerns that these basic requirements are not being met at schools where children use computers daily.

Bunny Martin, who runs charity Body Action Campaign, said schools tend to have a single standard computer set-up for nine and 15-year-olds alike.

Individual needs

The charity runs a film and animation programme for children which is aimed at teaching them safe practices when interacting with technology.

Ms Martin said around 60% of children she meets have first symptoms of NSAP, including strain-related pain in the neck and shoulders.

She is concerned that young children are spending excessive amounts of time on machines, texting on mobiles and playing computer games.

But as tech has evolved, the computer mouse has also come a long way over 40 years to meet the diverse needs of its users.

There is even a "footmouse" that gives the users the ability to move the cursor and click the buttons with their feet.

Other types of the device include ergonomic, trackball, vertical, cordless, scroll, for left and right-handed people, and in smaller sizes for children, among others.

But to ensure individual needs are met, physiotherapist Pauline Cole reiterated: "One size does not fit all, and that's why the workplace assessment is important in the first place."

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