Five Physical Dangers Of Working From Home

Most of us freelance designers spend the majority of our consciousness sitting in front of a computer.  If we’re not doing actual design work, we’re communicating with clients, managing our finances or catching up on our twitter feeds – all of which also involve using the computer. I figure I spend between 45 – 70 hours a week at the computer depending on my workload, and as such have felt physical effects of prolonged computer exposure.

Here are a few things to be weary of if you work from home and hope to make it out in one piece.

1. Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)

I first felt the effects of RSI over 10 years ago in high school when I got my very own Pentium computer.  I spent every waking moment on that machine until I started to notice my right arm always felt tingly, like it was asleep.  Turns out my computer chair was way too low causing my wrist to bend at an awkward angle.  Couple that with hours upon hours of repetitive wrist movement (insert childish joke here) and you have yourself the perfect RSI candidate.

RSI is one of the most common problems among computer users.  I’ve heard of people who don’t have the wrist strength to open a door once RSI has had its way with them. There are tons of RSI prevention lists out there and about a bazillion ways to battle RSI.  Personally, I’m going to try to take a 5 minute break every half hour, watch my posture and use my wacom tablet more.

2. Back Pain

A few weeks before I went full time with freelancing I got rid of my $30 Ikea chair and bought myself a shiny, new, top-of-the-line office chair.  I was very proud of myself.  A few months later my back is killing me and the chair is a likely culprit – this thing sucks!  It’s more the kind of chair an executive would kick back and put their feet on their desk to catch a few zzz’s with.  If only I could do that for a living.

In the next short while I hope to find an ergonomic office chair with a decent height range… oh yeah, and definitely not leather this time – what was I thinking?

3. Eye Strain

From what I’ve been reading, permanent eye damage is not that common among computer users – but some days I sure feel it temporarily.  It doesn’t help that I wear contact lenses for 18 hours a day and probably blink about half as much as I should while I’m staring at the monitor.  I’ve had some of the worst migraines since I’ve gone full time and I’m willing to bet it’s a contact lens related issue.

I would wear my glasses but they are about 4 prescriptions old and missing an arm. The solution here is pretty obvious, get some #$&%#@# new glasses and stop my whining.  I’m also going to try to look out the window every once in a while so my eyes focus on something that’s not 2 feet from my face.

4. Neck pain

I would love to keep blaming my office equipment and old prescriptions for my problems, but this one is all me.  I’ve always been a “huncher”, and I’m probably at my very worst when I’m in deep concentration in front of the computer.  I have a feeling that this is going to be the toughest battle for me, as I’ve had terrible posture my whole life.  I wish there was an easy trick or top 10 list for sitting up straight, but I think I’m on my lonesome for this one.

5. Lack of Exercise

At my old job I would always walk to work – rain or shine.  I would walk between 6 – 10 hours a week depending on how many days I was scheduled for.  Nowadays my bedroom is my office and I haven’t gone on a decent walk since I picked up my final paycheck.  I’ve always been a pretty scrawny guy, but lately when I go down the stairs I can feel parts of me jiggle that have never jiggled before.  Something must be done.

I’m not much of a gym guy and I’ve never been particularly fond of sports. As such, I have resolved to walk at least an hour a day, everyday.  I will try to wake up early and walk in the morning, but if that doesn’t happen then I will make up for it in the evening.

So there you have it.  Five things I need to work on if I hope to surive freelancing in one piece.  Now for the hard part – actually doing them.

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Yo, I'm Andrew Lindstrom. I am a freelance web designer based in Vancouver, Canada. When not geeking out over design, I'm likely geeking out over film, technology or pretending to play the guitar.

19 Responses to This Post. Leave Your Own.

  1. The chair is so damn important. I got myself this Kinnarps about 2 years ago and I haven’t regretted the decision.

  2. yeah, the chair can be real important. also the desk should be comfortable enough that you don’t feel cramped and you should have enough desk space to spread out.

    if you spend all day in your home office you have to make it a space you don’t tire of.

  3. @Mats – I didn’t do any research on office chairs before I bought one. Thanks for the tip, I’ll check it out.

    @Gushin – My home office had very little planning and is quite cramped indeed. That’s a very good tip.

  4. This is all so important – I’ve become militant about ergonomics and my wacom tablet since the night I realised I couldn’t sleep because the pain in my wrist was so bad. The trackpad mouse in my laptop is especially awful – I’m thinking about taping over it with duct tape to remind me not to use it.

  5. Posture is my downfall too. I know when I am really involved in what I am working on my posture is awful.

    Good points on the chair too; think I’ll look to making a new chair purchase soon!

  6. @Sophie – Trackpads are really poorly positioned aren’t they? But using an external mouse takes the convenience out of the whole laptop experience! Such a quandary…

    @Cameron – It’s the worst when you get so involved that when you sit back you realize you’ve been hunched over the computer in deep concentration for an hour straight.

  7. For me? Developing a hardcore porn habit, or is that more a psychological danger? Mind you, I now have a bad hip from my misspent time trying to work the mouse and “work out at the Y” so I guess it counts!

    Naomi Will / September 11th, 2008
  8. I swear by learning the shortcuts for zooming in and out, and trying to remember actually use them. I tend to sit behind my 23″ apple cinema and *lean in* to check out some detail, instead of zooming in. Terrible habit…

  9. @crayoncrisis – Fantastic point. I don’t know how many times I’ve had my nose practically pressed up against the screen.

  10. I had the same problems about 6 months ago. It got to the point where I would get awful migranes, neck/shoulder pains and ended up going to the chiropractor twice a week :-/

    Exersise REALLY helped me. Actually, I don’t think it was the exersise as such, but the stretching that comes with it. I’ve never been a gym fan either but I started doing Les Mills classes (BodyAttack) and also Bikram Yoga and since then I’ve hardly had any pain. Good luck with finding something that works for you!

  11. @Matty – That’s really scary, but glad to hear you’re doing better. I never considered yoga but that makes perfect sense. Great suggestions.

  12. I’m planning to start a freelance web practice myself–for the time being I do freelance print work and work for the local paper (I’m a better web designer but I live in kamloops, BC so it’s a supply and demand issue)

    I started biking or walking everywhere. Literally everywhere, the only recent exceptions being traveling out of town and picking up a new mattress. I also picked up guitar as a creative way to de-stress/non-visual passtime and I’m seriously thinking of picking up Tai Chi again, which helps posture and keeps things from atrophying.

  13. @kris – Playing the guitar is probably one the most therapeutic activities I do. Tai Chi would be awesome!

    Good luck with the launch of your freelance practice!

  14. I used to get really bad headaches with the old CRT monitors.

    That’s changed with LCD screens. I thinks you can sometimes do more designing away from the computer which is why I recently have started going back to basics with a pen and a piece of paper.

    Getting out is also very important.

    Great site by the way.

  15. Excellent post. My associates and I see these conditions quite a bit in the office resulting from home work and inactivity. When I was in graduate school, I figured I would see extremely physical workers in the clinic but it’s turned out to be the opposite. Working from home and being sedentary can degrade the body even faster. Stretching yourself out daily and making time to exercise is a must!

  16. Having had bi lateral carpal tunnel release, and every other symptom you have described, I have done a crapload of research. I agree that the chair is critical. The Hon Co makes a chair that adjusts in height, forward/backward tilt of base, forward/backward tilt of backrest, height of back rest, and height of arms. This chair isn’t the best on the market, but unless you have a lot of money to spend on a chair, it’s a good one.

    Next, the desk. Since you are a neck huncher, you should consider a system that lets you place the screen bottom lower than your waist. This will allow you to sit back and use your eyes to look down more often, as about half the screen is below your waist and half above (this will also help a little with the eyestrain as it makes you move your eyes about, changing the position of the very small muscles around the eyes.
    You can also put a duplicate system using the same server–or a laptop, on a standing desk made to your measure (take a podium and some blocks and 2×4’s and start building to elbow height) as this will literally take the weight off…
    Once you find the right positions for your desk and chair, you need to incorporate some movement into your desk time– change the tilts on the back and seat couple of times an hour.

    Hope these help- email or IM if you like, as I tend to remember more things during conversation, and it certainly sounds like you need to make some changes before really hurt yourself.

  17. I have almost all the same problems myself, but they are not so acute to make it a big problem.

  18. “I spend between 45 – 70 hours a week at the computer” Just be glad you don’t live in Europe. More than 48 hours a week is against the law i most countries over here!

  19. we have different office chairs in the office and i love to use those office chairs with clothe cover ;`,