Ergonomics Simplified

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Graphic tablets

The Wacom Silver Fun graphics tablet

A graphics tablet, or drawing tablet, is a good alternative to the mouse. This consists of a digital pen and tablet. In the past these have mainly been used by graphic designers, artists, and illustrators but are increasingly being used by those at risk or suffering from repetitive motion injuries. As mentioned, mouse use creates even more injuries that typing.

We know from research the positions where our bodies are most at rest. Other research has shown that the further we move from those positions the more likely we are to sustain injury. Holding one position for an extended time, repetitive motion, and using the same muscle groups to create all of our motion are also risk factors for injury. Traditional mouse use can create all of these risks. A good graphics tablet can decrease our risk in each of these areas.

To use the mouse most of us rest our wrist on the desk, hold the mouse with our thumb and small finger, and use our wrist and finger motion to create all of our movement. Let’s look at each of these individually.

Positioning

Resting the wrist on a hard surface such as a desk causes the nerve in our carpal tunnel to be compressed between the desk and the bones in our wrist. This compression decreases blood flow to the nerve resulting in pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness in the hand.

Bent wrist while mousing

While it seems we are resting our arm by doing this the forearm muscles that control the wrist are actually made to work continuously to hold the wrist up. Often we will keep our middle or index finger held up as well over the mouse button, instead of relaxed. These static muscle holds are one of the primary causes of tendonitis and forearm discomfort.

Many people, and companies, try to alleviate these risks with the use of a wrist pad. While this does create less pressure on the delicate nerve in the carpal tunnel it does not eliminate the poor positioning of the wrist. When resting the user will keep the wrist bent up toward the ceiling. This not only continues the overuse of the forearm muscles but this position is another known cause of carpal tunnel syndrome. This creates a false sense of safety thinking we have rid ourselves of the problem when we are still at risk for the exact same injuries!

Movement of device

Since the wrist is anchored on the desk any motion from the shoulder is stifled and all of our motion then comes from the wrist. This causes the same muscle groups in the forearm we just discussed to further overwork to move the mouse.

Holding the device

The muscle groups at the base of the thumb and under the small finger in the palm are constantly working to hold the mouse. These are relatively small muscle groups that fatigue quickly. Now think how many hours a day you hold the mouse. It is easy to see why we get fatigue and cramping in the hand from mousing.

Repetitive motion

To move the cursor you must repeatedly move back and forth thousands of times a day. Using the scroll wheel requires further repetitive movements up and down. The muscle group that does this is also in the forearm. Starting to see how much work we are doing with one small area of our body?

Neutral posture

Rest your hands in your lap and take a moment to examine the position they take. The wrist is relatively straight with a slight upward bend. If you drew a line down the middle of your forearm it would continue straight through the middle finger. The thumb points toward the ceiling so the palms face each other and the fingers gently curl. This is the neutral posture where your body has to work the least. Therefore it makes sense that we want to work as close to that position as possible to minimize the stress we place on our bodies.

Now hold your mouse and examine your position. The hand is rotated palm down (or pronated), the wrist bends sharply toward the ceiling, and we pinch with the thumb and small fingers. Some people hold the wrist angled toward the small finger even while resting. How about your fingers? Are they truly relaxed or are your muscles holding them up? Holding the mouse looks nothing like the rested neutral position our body does best in.

How graphic tablets can help

Now grab a pen as if you are going to write. This looks pretty close to our body’s neutral resting position. The palm is not rotated down, the thumb points up, the wrist is straight or slightly bent back, and the wrist does not angle toward the small finger. The fingers also assume the same position as at rest. When you use a graphics tablet you use this same position. No pressure is placed on the carpal tunnel this way either. Studies have shown that there is very little deviation from this neutral position while using the graphics tablet and when it does deviate it is for very short periods. More time in a good position means less risk for injury.

A graphics tablet also frees up your shoulder to move. This takes some of the load off of the forearm muscles and allows the larger shoulder muscles to help out. Studies also show that once given a graphics tablet users tend to do this naturally.

While we still must hold the pen it is in a much more natural posture than when holding the mouse. Most graphics tablets also come with a mouse that works on the pad. This allows you to go back and forth from pen to mouse at will. In this way your hand gets variety and therefore rest.

Scrolling also becomes easier with a flick of the pen or use of special tools on the tablet.

Graphic tablets are a great option for programs such as home photo and video editing in addition to professional programs such as Powerpoint, Illustrator, Visio, etc.

When choosing a tablet there are a few factors to consider. In terms of size, ergonomically you want the smallest tablet that will allow you to do your job. If the tablet is too big you have difficulty with reaching too far to the tablet or the keyboard. For standard office tasks the basic models are more than sufficient. On the other hand the larger tablets have more sensitivity and options that may be required for high end graphic or design work. Keep in mind that the actual size of the tablet is larger than the stated working surface. Often it is best to use an ergonomic keyboard that does not have the number pad on the right when working with larger tablets.

In the past unfamiliarity and price have kept many office workers from using graphic tablets. That is no longer the case as recently entry level tablets have been introduced to the market that now make this an affordable option for most workers. Whether you already have signs or symptoms of injury or simply do a job that requires a lot of mouse use the graphics tablet is a helpful tool. If you have questions what may work best for you see the product details on our website or feel free to email us.

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