Can your computer kill you?

Friday, 13 May 2011 From Issue Vol. XIX No. 19 By  Dr. Iain Corness

Can your computer kill you?  Well, it can.  Especially if it lands on your head from a great height.  However, sorry about the attention grabbing headline, it’s an old journalist’s trick.  Your computer really won’t kill you (other than the situation mentioned above), but sitting at your computer, for hours on end, can!  And backing up this contentious claim is one of the world’s respected medical publications, the New Zealand Medical Journal, with the results tabled at an annual conference of the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand.

Now everyone in the world, other than a few farmers in outer Mongolia who still use horses like Genghis Kahn, has heard of the “Economy Class Syndrome”, in which you end up getting blood clots in the legs from being squeezed into seat 176A at the rear of the Economy section of Fright or Flight airlines.  The rationale is that after sitting in 176A for the 12 hour flight to bring the bad news to Outer Mongolia about Genghis’ passing, the blood flow in the legs slows so much that clotting forms and you end up with yet another medical acronym, this time called DVT, or more correctly Deep Vein Thrombosis, or even Deep Venous Thrombosis.  This knowledge has produced a group of nervous airline passengers, cowering in fear, waiting for hijacking or DVTs.

However, Professor Richard Beasley of the Medical Research Institute in New Zealand has studied the folk admitted to hospital with DVTs and found that only 21 percent had traveled on long distance flights, whilst 34 percent were sedentary office workers who would sit in front of their computer screen for three to four hours at a stretch without getting up, and do this for up to 14 hours a day.  This showed two factors.  Firstly their work habit was dangerous, allowing the blood to pool up in their legs, and secondly, they had magnificent bladder control, much better than mine.

Whilst I was joking about the bladder control, I would postulate that to be able to sit for four hours at a time, these office workers were not drinking enough fluid, leading to hemoconcentration or thickening of the blood, and even more likelihood of blood clots.  Look around your office, how many of the staff have a water jug, or even a glass of water on their work station?  In my office, only two of us have water on the desk.

That’s enough on the factors leading to DVT, what can a DVT do?  What happens is very understandable.  The clot breaks off from the deep vein and then travels upwards towards the heart.  In doing so, it will go from major, large diameter blood vessels into smaller and smaller again.  Eventually, depending upon the size, the clot will become wedged in a very small vessel and shut off the blood supply to that area.

If the blockage occurs in the lung, the condition is called a Pulmonary Embolism (PE).  This is potentially fatal.  It is estimated that each year more than 600,000 patients suffer a pulmonary embolism.  PE causes or contributes to up to 200,000 deaths annually in the United States.  One in every 100 patients who develop DVT die due to pulmonary embolism.  So you don’t want one, do you.

There is some good news in all this, if pulmonary embolism can be diagnosed early and appropriate therapy started early, the mortality can be reduced from approximately 30 percent to less than 10 percent.

Still, 10 percent is a little too high for my liking.  So what can you do to prevent getting a DVT in the first place?  Apart from the obvious maintenance of good health with sensible eating and drinking and regular check-ups, the important preventive factors include getting up and walking around at least every hour (both in the office and from seat 176A), drinking plenty of water and taking 100 mg of aspirin every day.  By making it less likely that a clot can form, you remove the dangers of DVT.

Go and get a glass of water now!  And use it to swallow your aspirin.

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