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SFSU Public Affairs Press Release

Published by the Public Affairs Office at San Francisco State University, Diag Center.

Contact: William Morris
phone: 415/405-3606

Bad form leads to painful computing

SFSU holistic health researchers show that ergonomic solutions alone won't help prevent computer-related injuries, which cost companies millions of dollars each year.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA, May 31, 2000-New research shows it takes more than just an ergonomic desk chair or a split keyboard to prevent the health problems affecting millions of computer users. But that doesn't mean computer users must resign themselves to a life of chronic pain, say Dr. Erik Peper and Katherine Hughes Gibney of San Francisco State University's Institute for Holistic Healing Studies.

Much like developing a golf swing or a tennis serve, if you don't use the proper form when working on a computer, you chance discomfort, pain, and even injury, says Peper, director of the Institute for Holistic Healing Studies. Peper's studies, which form the basis of his new book Healthy Computing with Muscle Biofeedback, have shown that even employees who work on a computer as little as three hours per day experience pain and discomfort. Thus, he says, the need for people to develop healthy computin g habits extends beyond those working in positions such as data entry, which are normally associated with repetitive motion injury.

However, Peper and Hughes Gibney resist the common descriptor "repetitive motion injury," noting that muscle groups are used repetitively all the time without injury. Instead, they see repetitive motion as one factor among many that contribute to a cluster of symptoms they call "computer-related disorder" (CRD).

"Because computer use is pervasive in modern society, by the time people hit the corporate market, they have unwittingly learned bad computing habits and so they are already at risk for CRD," says Peper. "Businesses spend millions of dollars teaching employees how to use software, but they neglect training in how to work on computers productively while maintaining health."

Employers usually respond to computer-related health problems by enlisting the help of ergonomists, specialists who design body-friendly workstations, or by enrolling the employee in a stress management program. But, says Peper, "Ergonomics doesn't provide all the answers. You can be working in the 'optimum ergonomic position' and still be tense." The problem, he says, is "dysponesis"-inappropriate muscle tension. Studies by Peper and his colleagues show that when working at the computer, individual s often raise their shoulders and breath more shallowly and quickly. The result is one or more of a host of symptoms that could lead to disabling conditions: arm and shoulder numbness, pain and/or tingling in the wrist or arm, neck and back pain, or eye strain.

The solution, claim Peper and Hughes Gibney, is for individuals to retrain their work habits. Through their classes for SFSU's College of Extended Learning, and the recent release of their manual Healthy Computing with Muscle Biofeedback, the two are teaching workplace health practitioners (physical and occupational therapists, ergonomists, and safety managers) how to use a combination of bio-feedback, ergonomics, and stress management to help employees become healthy computer users.

A central component of their program is the use of a portable surface electromyograph (sEMG) to help identify work patterns contributing to unhealthy behavior. The sEMG provides auditory feedback from electrodes placed on the skin. The electrodes monitor the bio-electrical activity produced by the muscle when it contracts, producing a signal that is represented by a low pitch. The tenser the muscles, the higher the bio-electrical activity, which causes the monitor to emit a higher pitch. This signal s that the computer user is experiencing dysponesis and needs to relax the muscles being monitored. Once the muscle relaxes, the sEMG returns to its normal level, helping the computer user identify what is required to maintain relaxed muscles.

The advantages of investing in a sEMG monitor go beyond helping employees retrain their computing habits, says Hughes Gibney. "The machine helps companies screen employees to see who is most at risk and thus a priority for the program. It also authenticates those who have gone through the training, making sure they are maintaining their healthy habits."

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NOTE: Erik Peper and Katherine Hughes Gibney can both be reached at 415/338-7683, or individually by e-mail:,

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Last modified May 31, 2000, by Office of Public Affairs