Preview performance of the Huntington Theatre Company's James Joyce's The Dead, September 7, 8, and 9, at the BU Theatre

Vol. V No. 3   ·   31 August 2001 


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Computers can be a pain in the neck, says Sargent prof

By David J. Craig

Nothing makes Karen Jacobs cringe more than the sight of a person hunched over a computer keyboard, arms and wrists bent awkwardly and neck craned downward at a poorly positioned monitor. Although it is well-known that repetitive physical motions such as typing can cause serious ailments, Jacobs, a clinical associate professor at Sargent College and a certified ergonomist, says, many people still endanger themselves when using a computer.

  Courtesy of Cornell University (

"The biggest problem I see is that when people find a physical setup that is comfortable, they think they can put in eight hours in that position," she says. "But everybody needs to take breaks and to change his or her posture slightly during the day."

Of course, ergonomists advise that some guidelines for working at a computer should be followed all the time: make sure that the eye level is in line with a spot about three inches from the top of the monitor screen and that the eyes are about an arm's length away from the screen; use a height-adjustable keyboard tray that allows the wrists to rest in a flat position (not bent up or down or to the left or right) while using the keyboard and the mouse; keep the arms as close to the body as possible, with elbows bent at least at a 90-degree angle; and place paper documents being read at an angle similar to that of the computer monitor, preferably in a document holder.

However, according to Jacobs, the position of the computer monitor and one's posture should be adjusted over the course of a workday. "If natural light is coming into the room, the monitor should be moved during the day to make sure it is always at about a 90-degree angle to the window, and a light that cranes should be used to keep the materials being used fully lighted," she says. "And your back position should be varied. If you start by leaning back into the chair at a 90-degree angle, at some point, change it to about 105 degrees."

If used for long periods of time, laptop computers are an ergonomists' nightmare, Jacobs says. "You'll get neck and shoulder problems right away because your neck is always bending down, and the keyboard and mouse aren't detachable so you can't get in a good posture," she says. She advises students who use a laptop to purchase a separate, full-size monitor and keyboard. She also recommends that people who work at any computer for extended periods take a brief break every 20 to 30 minutes to stretch and to do breathing exercises.

Jacobs, who is a former president of the American Occupational Therapy Association, recently wrote a brochure on the healthy use of backpacks that is now distributed with all L. L. Bean backpacks and catalogs. (See "Bulletin Board") She was also recently interviewed for an informational video on the subject. Keys to proper backpack use include selecting a backpack with a waist belt and padded straps at least two inches wide, wearing both shoulder straps and the waistbelt and securing the backpack snugly to the body, and loading heavy items so they are close to your back.

Members of the BU community may contact Karen Jacobs at 353-7516 with questions about proper computer positioning and other ergonomics issues.


31 August 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations