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Work-related pain can be prevented

(ran CI, NP, PT editions)

"My job is killing me."

Okay, so maybe that was just a tiny bit of an exaggeration. It's not as if we have a really dangerous job, after all. But you know what we mean: Muscle tension that starts in your shoulders, creeps up your neck and shoves your head into a vise.

A niggling tight spot in the morning, just below our waist, that radiates up and down and out and around to contort every muscle in our back by afternoon.

No wonder we squawk to our spouses or roommates or pets when the day is done.

Job-related pain is so prevalent that Wichita, Kan., orthopedic surgeon Mark Melhorn spends a lot of his time researching it, trying to help employers identify risks and prevent injuries.

The bad news: Some people are at higher risk for job-related pain and injury.

The good: There are ways to relieve it or, even better, prevent it. "I firmly believe that prevention is the best approach," Melhorn says.

Women are more at risk than men.

That may be because of office ergonomics: Chairs, desks, conference tables, even doorknobs and pens, are designed with men's builds in mind, Melhorn says.

Hormones, especially linked to childbirth, also may place some extra risk on women, he says.

Age plays a role, too: "As we get older, we're more likely to have muscle aches and pains," Melhorn says.

Arthritis Today magazine says marital status may be a risk factor. In a survey of 1,302 Canadian men, married men were more likely than single men to have low back pain.

But back injuries aren't as common as they used to be, Melhorn says, because of federal rules governing lifting.

Among the work factors likely to cause pain are repetition, force, awkward posture and contact stress (from resting an arm on a desk edge or using a too-short utility knife, for example).

Unaccustomed activities can be a problem, too. By that, Melhorn means a sheet-metal mechanic who moves to a paint shop. Or a baseball player who tries football. "It's a different set of muscles."

For a 16-year-old, "it's not a big deal," he says. For a 46-year-old, "it can be."

And though prevention is the best defense, there are things workers can do to relieve pain. Here are some suggestions.

Take "micro breaks." Aim for two or three minutes every hour. Go to the drinking fountain, go to the bathroom, do a few stretches. The breaks will improve your productivity, too.

Change tasks. At a desk job, spend an hour at the keyboard, then open some mail, then return calls.

For wrists and arms, hold your arm out in front of you, with your elbow straight. Gently bend your wrist up and hold for five to 10 seconds, then bend it down and hold for five to 10 seconds.

For backs, do the "doorway stretch." Stand in a doorway, with your hands on the door frame at shoulder level. With one foot slightly forward, gently lean into the room. Change feet and do it again.

During breaks, bend your head gently forward and backward and roll it from side to side.

Heat in the morning and cool in the afternoon or evening helps with tension headaches. Fill a sock with rice and heat it in the microwave, then put it across the back of your neck. Later in the day, try ice cubes in a plastic bag or a cold washcloth.

Take advantage of physical conditioning programs. Think of yourself as a "workplace athlete."

Your chair, your desk and your keyboard can affect your comfort. Here are some guidelines from Melhorn:

Your chair should be at a height that allows your knees to bend at a 90-degree angle.

Your buttocks should be at the back of the seat cushion.

Your chair should have some lumbar support. If it doesn't, use a piece of foam or a small pillow. But you don't always have to sit with your back against the chair.

A footrest gives you the chance to change the position of your legs, one at a time or together. An old phone book will work.

When typing, keep your wrists in a neutral position and your elbows bent at 90 degrees.

If you primarily type from a document, the document should be in front of you with your computer screen to the side. If you sometimes type from a document, have a document holder on both sides of your computer.

The top of your computer screen should be just below eye level, so that you look slightly over the top of your computer when you look straight ahead.

Use an antiglare device.

Use the keyboard and mouse that are most comfortable for you. Science hasn't shown that one kind works better than another, though there definitely is user preference.

Use a telephone headset or a phone rest if you're on the phone a lot.