Guy with bandaged wrist carrying a backpack giving a thumbs up

I hope you had a great first month of the year and that you’re already working towards your programming goals for 2017!

I wanted to talk about something different today…Something happened to my wife and business partner, Brooke. It’s been a huge wakeup call for me as a programmer and I wanted to share this story with you as a cautionary tale…I hope something similar doesn’t happen to you.

Whether you’re a programmer or not, chances are you spend most of your working hours sitting at a desk in front of a computer. At the close of the year Brooke started getting a sharp pain in her wrist and arm. It became so painful, she couldn’t use a keyboard or mouse for two full weeks.

Upon some self-diagnosis it appeared that she was suffering from something called Cubital Tunnel Syndrome (similar to the well known Carpal Tunnel Syndrome). Basically, her ring and pinky finger on her right hand went numb, and she had pains shooting up and down her arm.

After researching potential causes, we realised her desk setup may be the culprit.

It was a wake up call to both of us…what would happen to us financially if we both couldn’t work for two weeks? Two weeks off work is a long time when you’re self-employed. As a freelance software developer (or freelance anything for the matter), the prospect of two weeks of unexpected time off is a scary thought… no work = no pay!

Instead of troubleshooting the situation ourselves, we brought in some professionals.

Brooke booked an appointment with a company called Back in Action. Not only were they the most affordable in London, but they were also the most accommodating.

It cost us a total of £300 (£150 for each assessment) and it was worth every penny.

They sent a guy named Simon over to our house. The session took around two hours in total and involved Simon observing us working and then giving us practical and easy to implement advice.

Since every person and desk is different, the advice was specifically tailored for us.

But needless to say, most of the advice we learned will apply to almost everyone:

1. Feet on the floor

It turns out the biggest issue for Brooke was that her feet were not touching the floor.

This forces your body to sub-consciously seek support in other ways.

The result was that she was putting excessive pressure on her arms and wrists to balance herself on the chair.

While sitting at your desk it is crucial that you have both feet resting comfortably on the floor.

If your feet can’t reach the floor, then you may need to get a foot stool. (She is currently using a shoe box, but it seems to do the trick).

2. Arms resting on the desk

It turns out both of us had the keyboard and mouse too close to us, which meant that we were propping our arms and wrists on the edge of the desk, putting undue pressure on our joints.

It turns out that the keyboard and mouse should be far enough away so that your forearms are fully resting on the desk. This way the pressure is evenly distributed along your arm as opposed to being concentrated in one specific place.

3. Screen an arms length away

Your screen should be an arms length away. So if you raise your arms so they’re parallel with the ground, your finger tips should be close (but not touching) your monitor.

4. Top of screen just below eye level

The muscles in the eye make it easier for you to look slightly down then slightly up.

That means it’s better to have the top third of the monitor level or just below your eyes.

If you are having to look up (even a tiny bit) at the top of your screen, then this will tire your eyes out quickly and cause loads of straining and headaches.

5. Exposure!

Perhaps the most valuable point that Simon stressed was exposure.

Human beings are not designed to sit at desks for prolonged periods of time. We are designed to MOVE.

That’s why it is important to ensure you are constantly moving throughout the day.

It’s recommended that every 30 minutes you get up from your desk and stretch or do anything to move your body.

Even if it’s going to get a cup of tea or some fresh air outside. Just move around.

I realise this is common-sense knowledge that most of us already know. Sadly, it’s not until something happens to us that we realise how important it is to put this common-sense into practice and establish healthy work habits.

As a developer, sitting in front of the computer for hours at a time is a regular occurrence for me. What if I physically could not do that anymore? Besides the financial impact of not being able to work, there are huge mental consequences…I love programming. It’s my passion. I’m not sure what I would do with myself if I wasn’t able to program everyday!

If you are experiencing any pain or discomfort, I strongly recommend you go and see a doctor or book a session with Back in Action (in London / greater UK) or another local Occupational Physiotherapist. Even if you’re not experiencing any problems now, it’s best to get on top of your work setup to avoid any potential injuries in the future.

Thanks for reading and I hope you this word of caution inspires you to make healthy changes to your workspace and habits.


P.S. I just want to stress that I am not a doctor or qualified physiotherapist, so please follow the above advice at your own risk. Better yet, bring a pro in to help you. It’s worth the investment!