Office workers find phones a pain in the neck

Wednesday, 24 November, 2004

Hundreds of thousands of people who regularly use a phone are likely to suffer from neck and back pain as well as headaches. According to the first detailed study of telephone users in the office environment, there is a measurable health risk for anyone using the phone for as little as two hours a day.

The research, commissioned by Plantronics, one of the world's leading communication headset manufacturers, and conducted by the health sciences department at Surrey University in the UK, found that 50 per cent of office workers suffered from neck pain and 31 per cent suffered from lower back pain. Surprisingly, 65 per cent of participants also said they suffered from headaches sometimes or frequently.

"The real value of this study is that it provides a comprehensive real-life picture of the postures associated by telephone use in the daily office environment," said Paul Clark, International Marketing Director of Plantronics. "Although legislation requires that risk assessments of computer workstations should be conducted regularly, in compliance with the 1992 DSE regulations, telephone use has been overlooked."

This detailed two-month study analysed the postures adopted to use the telephone. All participants used the phone and computer simultaneously during their work and spent a minimum of two hours on the phone each day. In a crossover study, each participant was monitored during a four-week period using the traditional telephone handset (control condition) and four weeks with a Plantronics headset (intervention condition).

Nearly two thirds of respondents said they rarely or never had a headache when using the Plantronics headset. In addition, the research found that using a Plantronics headset reduced neck pains by 31 per cent, lower back pain by 16 per cent and upper back pain by 9 per cent. Headaches were reduced by 27 per cent when a headset was used.

In recent years there has been a significant increase in health complaints in the lower arm, shoulder and neck, which are now as common as back pain. While 'Phone Neck' - caused by the phone being gripped between the head and shoulders leaving both hands free to use the computer or take notes - is a common complaint among telephone and mobile phone users, until now there has been little scientific research into this condition.

"Unlike manual worker safety, the issue of occupational injury among office staff is still not taken seriously enough by employers," said Elizabeth Simpson MCSP, SRP, author of the study and a practising physiotherapist. "This is partly because the injuries caused by bad telephone habits cannot be seen and take time to manifest. This study has shown that the use of telephone headsets can reduce neck pain, back pain and headaches in subjects who use the phone and computer simultaneously for a minimum of two hours a day."

Simpson went on to say, "Since awkward or constrained postures are associated with increased risk of musculoskeletal disorders and reduced work performance, the focus of our study was the effect of telephone use on working postures. We observed measurable differences between the postures adopted while using a telephone receiver, compared to a telephone headset.

"Any posture which constrains the body in an awkward position puts greater pressure on the joints and muscles, as well as increasing the risk of nerve compression. Many of the postures adopted to use a telephone receiver could increase the risk of work-related musculoskeletal disorders. Perhaps the most commonly observed posture is to grip the telephone between shoulder and head, leaving both hands free to use a computer, or take notes during the call. This posture increases the risk of nerve compression in the neck and shoulder area, which could lead to a range of problems in the spine, arm and hands.

"Another potentially dangerous telephone posture involves leaning forward away from the back of the chair while taking a call. This puts greater pressure on the spine, which can cause discomfort; at worst it could lead to a cumulative disorder."

The conclusion of this study provided a message for employers that anyone who uses the telephone for a minimum of two hours a day in conjunction with a computer could benefit from a headset, which significantly improves working posture and consequently reduces risk of injury.

For further information contact Plantronics Pty Limited (Australia)
Level 2, 200 Arden Street, North Melbourne, 3051

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