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Medical problems among technoheads can be complicated
Thursday, June 01, 2006
by Chris Zdeb, CanWest News Service

Geek + health does not compute

The "geek lifestyle," long-known for being short on sociability, is also exacting a toll on the health of some of those leading the tech-life.

There is no research per se, no doubt in part because the majority of geeks are young men, a demographic notorious for not seeking help for their medical problems. But an American medical internist practising in a tech-rich area on the eastern seaboard sees anecdotal evidence of several problems he finds unique to IT (information technology) workers. They are: insomnia and altered sleep patterns, headaches, back pain and poor attention span.

These issues are a significant topic on, a website that allows health-care workers, once their identity is verified, to anonymously debate and argue about medicine and health-related topics without risk of legal action. Among those on the site are Dr. AA, who practises medicine in the eastern U.S. and contributes anonymously to

"Almost every IT worker will describe at least one of (these) ailments," Dr. AA writes in response to an e-mail prompted by his web postings. "The only ones that typically do not identify with these ailments are the very avid exercising types."

Or those who notice the symptoms but have not connected them to their lifestyle or have not sought medical treatment, Dr. AA writes.

His posting on the website attracted comment from dozens of IT workers who admitted their lifestyle was probably behind their aches, pains and discomfort.

Corey Cousins, manager of the Geek Hut in Edmonton, says he could see the minority of geeks who take things to the extreme, including the time they spend at a computer, developing health problems.

"But I think that's the same with any kind of lifestyle. If you take something to the extreme, you will suffer," Cousins says.

Jason Slade, a 19-year-old Edmonton computer tech who works in a call centre, says he used to have restless and sore and tired eyes when he spent 14 hours a day at a keyboard.

"I often couldn't fall asleep and would get up and play more games," he says.

Slade credits girlfriend Sarah Green for getting him away from the computer. He still spends about 10 hours a day working or playing at a terminal, but he sleeps better. After about five or six hours spent glued to a screen, though, his eyes still get irritated.

Slade says his employer is aware of the physical problems that can develop from the lifestyle and makes sure workers take regular breaks.

"You get in trouble if you don't take your breaks," he says.

Cousins notes computer gaming companies such as giant Blizzard Entertainment are recognizing the need for players to take breaks, and are building incentives into games. In some versions, players get more powerful or get more firepower when they stop and rest for an hour or two.

There are two reasons why IT workers develop medical symptoms related to their job, says Dr. Jeremy Beach, an associate professor in the department of public health sciences at the University of Alberta who specializes in occupational and environmental medicine. One is the result of spending too much time at a computer. The other is because their workstation has not been properly set up.

Chronic headaches are often the result of poor screen position, too small fonts, too bright or too dark a screen or poor sitting posture, according to Dr. AA.

Poor posture, incorrectly sized chairs or poorly positioned monitors are frequently behind a geek's chronic back pain, he says.

To find out if their work environment is to blame, Beach suggests having an expert brought in to assess it and suggest improvements. If problems persist, they are likely related to computer overuse.

"Using the same muscles, the same way, day after day, leads to overuse, fatigue and loss of other muscle groups," Dr. AA writes.

Exercising several times a week and taking several breaks throughout the day can help balance things out, he adds.

To improve sleep, Dr. AA recommends using the bed only for sleep and sex -- not as a place to use a laptop, watch TV or play video games. If you awaken in the night and stay awake for longer than 10 to 15 minutes, get up and do something non-stimulating, such as listening to music or reading, Dr. AA advises.

Poor attention span and problems staying awake during the day can be fallout from not getting a good night's sleep, Dr. AA says. But for geeks, who have always been stimulated by computers, or doing many things at once, it could be related to work that does not involve a computer, or having to focus on only one thing, such as a meeting, he explains.

"If you have trouble concentrating on simple things, then you have to do it more often to get better at it. Reading a book, painting, running, meditation, shooting hoops, swimming laps, are all examples of unitasking," Dr. AA writes.
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