Ergonomics and ME/CFS: Have You Hurt Yourself Without Knowing It?

Having a chronic illness like ME/CFS can make it hard to avoid problems that come from bad ergonomics. Jody Smith has learned some lessons the hard way …

pixabay-privacyErgonomics can help people to navigate in a healthy way through their world, so they are not slouching, bent funny or stuck in the same position for too long, and so they can avoid the aches, pains and problems that result from same.

Ergonomics and ME/CFS may seem like strange bedfellows. And in fact, actual ME/CFS bedfellows, those who must live all day long in their beds, may not find anything useful here. As with so many things, those who are bedridden do not fit the mould.

ME/CFS is a dictator that forces many of us to lie down, slouch in a recliner or lean on a grocery cart. On the face of it, ergonomics may seem like just another way for us to be mocked and reminded that our bodies don’t work right.

Reminders to sit up straight and keep your feet flat on the floor can be enough to set off a revolt amongst people who are bedridden and who couldn’t sit up straight to save their soul.

And if instead of a desk you use your bed for your computer, all that information about how high your monitor shoud be, and where your keyboard needs to go, reads like something written for a foreign country, or by someone who is foreign to our limitations.

It can seem like just one more set of rules that are supposedly meant to help us but in reality just give us a rude reminder that we can’t do the things that would make our lives so much more worth living.

But hang on. For those of us who can sit up, who can stand, and move about, maybe there’s something valuable here. That has been my own experience.

For years I spent hours at a time with my torso roughly curved in the shape of the letter C. I would lie on my bed, with a couple of pillows propping me up, and my knees raised to support the book I was reading. Sometimes I’d vary the menu by watching TV, but the basic position was still the same.

I was pretty sure I was going to be permanently bent forward, but I didn’t see any way around this. There just was no other position that I could stay in for very long. Lying on my side was good for sleep but not for being awake and trying to read or watch TV. So if it was going to make me crooked, so be it. I was getting through my days as best I could.

Eventually I was able to be up and around, sitting at a desk writing and editing online for hours each day. I was very happy to be doing this but my shoulders, back and arms were not happy in the least.

As I learned later, my setup was an ergonomic disaster. The desktop was the wrong height. My laptop monitor was too low and my keyboard was too high. I had knots in my shoulders and tendinitis in my shoulders, arms and hands on an ongoing basis.

My monthly naturopathic visits would take the edge off so I could continue to work but the pain and inflammation levels were hard to deal with.

I tried moving to an easy chair in the living room with a TV table as my desktop. This was a big mistake, but one I didn’t recognize for many months. The seat of the chair was too low, so my legs were not positioned properly and my ankles were always turned. My arm muscles complained constantly about being extended for hours every day as I typed.

I was crippled for the first four months of 2012, able only to move the fingers of both hands. My arms, shoulders and neck were locked in an ergonomic nightmare of my own making. I still had to work, so I learned how to type with just one hand which got the work done but it was a real drag.

I came to realize that if I wanted to be able to function I was going to have to do some research and find out what needed to be changed, and then change it. Fortunately I was well enough, and had enough money at that time to be able to do so.

The first thing I learned was that I needed to get a remote keyboard to use with my laptop. Sitting as I had been with arms stretched out the way they were was an invitation to trouble. So we got a remote keyboard. And a lap desk to put it on.

Now, a caution about these things.

Mine rested on my lap, and had little bean bag pads to cushion the weight on my knees but I am like the princess in the fairy tale who tossed and turned all night due to one small pea having been placed under a pile of mattresses. I am very delicate. Yes, I am a big and strapping Amazon … but a delicate one. I bruise and break easily.

That lap desk really messed me up. After a few months I finally realized it wasn’t working for me. My knees were deteriorating — right where the little pads rested on them for hours each day. I told myself it must be alright, this was supposed to be protecting my body … but it wasn’t.

I finally replaced it with a clipboard, turned upside down on my lap, for my keyboard to rest on. It’s there right now while I’m typing. There’s room for my mouse beside the keyboard and it does the job without turning my knees to pulp.

I was still pretty gimpy and fragile, so we continued to research. We found a low price computer desk, on sale for $40, which would fit in our living room, and which had a drawer for the keyboard. Everything was at about the right height for me.

Unfortunately this ME/CFS-beaten body doesn’t handle change well, even good change. I had to get used to the new desk gradually if I didn’t want to end up crippled yet again.

So the first day I carried my laptop over to my new desk and worked there for 10 or 20 minutes. Then back to my more familiar setup for the rest of the day. Over a period of a week I was able to make the transition without too much trouble. Now I will sometimes work at my desk and sometimes in my easy chair, next to my husband.

I have learned that while ergonomics was less than useless for me when I was trapped in my bed, as I have been able to venture out further into the world I find that some of it actually has some bearing on me. Some of it has even done me some good.

Have you had your own run-ins with ergonomics? What was your experience?

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