Suffering for one's science

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Was Alexander Fleming a martyr to backache? If this picture is anything to go by, he probably was — along with 80% of long-term microscope users. They are also afflicted with eye strain, a variety of muscular pains and tension headache. Help is at hand, though, from Alfons Kreczy and his colleagues (Lancet 354, 1701–1702; 1999).

Kreczy et al. designed a workstation to straighten out the hunched posture of microscopists. They adapted the eyepieces so that they could be used with only a 5° downward tilt of the head. They built an elevated table for the microscope with supports for the forearms. And they installed a chair that encouraged an upright sitting position and supported the lower back.

They then compared the muscle activity of users of the new, improved workstation with that of people sitting in an ordinary chair and using an ordinary microscope perched on a pile of books. The ergonomic workstation resulted in a big decrease in the activity of the most strained muscle groups — those of the neck, arms and lower back. Unfortunately, eye strain is an unavoidable consequence of scanning lots of slides.

Maintaining an unhealthy posture over a long period results in pain starting more quickly and taking longer to go away. Eventually it will carry over into rest periods and even, research on postal workers has found, into retirement.

So if you find yourself getting up from your microscope, clapping one hand to your forehead, the other to your back, and emitting a heartfelt groan, you might want to show this copy of The Lancet to your boss.

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Whitfield, J. Suffering for one's science. Nature 402, 857 (1999) doi:10.1038/47204

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