Debate: Health Problems Related to the Geek Lifestyle

   Posted October 14, 2007 by David Kirk in Entertainment

An Internal Medicine physician explores the common health problems seen among a technology-focused population. He believe the “geek lifestyle” is associated with several common medical issues.

Editor’s note: This article previously appeared on a now dead website that focused on debates regarding current medical issues. The original author was a good friend of mine and asked for me to share it with the tech-recipes community.

I am a currently practicing board-certified Internal Medicine physician in a large rapidly expanding tech-growth community. Our area is rapidly being filled with web development, IT, and biotechnology companies. As a doctor in this area over the last few years, I have discovered some unique health problems associated with this population.

“I have noticed several repeating patterns in this geek lifestyle population.” I have always wanted to post my observations regarding the geek lifestyle. I affectionately call it the “geek lifestyle” because of my previous life of programming and web design. One of the best part of my job is getting to live vicariously through these young energetic people. I frequently wonder what would have happened to me if I would have stayed with my tech-life instead of transitioning to medicine.

Personal points aside, I have noticed several repeating patterns in this geek lifestyle population. Hopefully, these ideas will spark others to study this unique population.

#1 Horrible Sleep Hygiene
Insomnia and altered sleep patterns is one of the most common complaints to my office. Frequently the complaint is of light sleep or of multiple awakening throughout the night. Although this can be a symptom of depression, this is typically caused by poor sleep habits. It typically starts with somebody waking up in the middle of the night and turning on the laptop or TV. This begins to happen more and more frequently until the patient starts to worry about waking up as soon as they go to bed at night. This stress makes the sleep worse and worse until they finally come to see me.
The bed should only be used for two things–sex and sleep.

The fix is typically easy if the habit is not too ingrained. The bed should only be used for two things–sex and sleep. If one is awake in bed for more than 10-15 minutes, one should get up and do something non-stimulating. Listening to music or reading are excellent choices. Lying in bed and watching TV or using the laptop are the worst. These stimulate the brain to wake up even more. If this happens repeatedly, the habit will be formed.

A few of my patients have tried “sleep hacking” and it almost always fails.

The dangers of hacking sleep have been explored by a physician elsewhere.

#2 Headaches

Recurrent headaches are a very frequent complaint among heavy computer users. Typically these are caused by a multitude of issues regarding computer use. If they occur the same time every day or if they do not appear on non-work days, these are the clues that point me to a computer cause.
Poor screen position, too small font, screen too bright/too dark, poor sitting posture are all commonly reported causes of chronic headache.
Often when I tell my patients that I suspect it is their work environment, they come back and tell me me how they fixed it. Poor screen position, too small font, screen too bright/too dark, poor sitting posture are all commonly reported causes of chronic headache. When in doubt, I just tell them to trade offices for a couple of days. If they feel better in the other office, then it suggests that it is related to their personal work environment.
Poor eyesight is frequently believed to be a cause of chronic headaches although I believe that is very overrated.

What I have seen a few times is that people with glasses having too strong of a prescription. Type-A people when getting refracted for glasses will mistakenly report that higher and higher powers make them see better. To check for this when you get your glasses, just ask your doctor if the manual refraction is close to the computer-predicted, automated refraction. If the manual is a lot higher, then over-power should be a consideration.

#3 Back Pain
Back pain is a frequent complaint in my office as well. In the general patient population, chronic back pain is often a sign of depression; however, in the geek this is more frequently due to work conditions or to overuse. Poor posture, incorrectly sized chair, or poorly positioned monitors are common culprits.

The weekend warrior syndrome often causes the overuse back injury here. All week long the back becomes weak from sitting at the computer desk all day. On the weekend, yard work or lifting causes strain on these underdeveloped muscle units.

#4 Poor Attention Span
I am always amazed at the number of people that mention to me that their attention span is poor. Frequently they will wonder if they have ADD. Sometimes they will even complain about the inability to stay awake during long meetings or stay focuses on non-computer tasks.
The typical geek trains their brain to be heavily focused while multitasking day after day. Is it surprising that this same brain does not do well when forced to isolate down to one task?

First, if one has poor sleep for any reason, the attention span and ability to stay awake during the day will be severely impacted. Attention span cannot be fixed unless the sleep pattern is healthy.

I believe that “poor attention span” has unique aspects in the geek population because I believe many people become geeks because computers have always been one of the things that keep them stimulated. In fact, if I question someone about their attention span, they never, even have problems staying focused on their computer work. If someone is in the middle of some exciting programming, the focus is always there. Therefore, it is not just a generic “attention” problem.

I believe this relative perception of poor attention span is actually caused by two factors. The first is genetic. The brains of some people are just programmed to multi-task. These people likely excel in a computer-rich environment for this reason. I believe the second factor is a simple training issue. Let me explain with an analogy.

If I were to go and try to run a few miles this weekend, I would not be able to easily do so. My muscles are just out of shape from my lack of exercise over the last few months. However, if you take one of the these college basketball athletes, any of them would be able to run miles without even breathing heavy. However, if you made them sit down and try to learn Java for 12 hours a day, most of them would be asleep at their desk before lunch.

The typical geek trains their brain to be heavily focused while multitasking day after day. Is it surprising that this same brain does not do well when forced to isolate down to one task? Listening in a meeting is a very isolated, very passive event. Coding, developing, debugging — these are not passive at all. The geek brain is just not trained to sit quietly and listen.


About David Kirk

David Kirk is one of the original founders of tech-recipes and is currently serving as editor-in-chief. Not only has he been crafting tutorials for over ten years, but in his other life he also enjoys taking care of critically ill patients as an ICU physician.
View more articles by David Kirk

The Conversation

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  • Vanessa Sagy

    At night, I sleep in a room where a computer is within 5 feet of the bed ( although it is located behind a partial wall). My spouse is constantly downloading material – hence the computer is running ALL through the night.
    I seem to be experiencing consistent headaches – this may or may not be related.

    What long term DANGERS can be caused to a HUMAN BEING by working COMPUTERS.

    • dashdotdash

      Move your bed or better invest in a quieter system
      Never use ear plugs
      Give your brains some rest – your immune system will thank you

    • matthew

      I spend about 4 hours a day at a computer then sleep about 2 ft from one that is on 24hr’s a day and I inever get headaches and am overall very healthy, being close to a computer will not affect your health.

    • Nay_Sayer

      The article gave no indication that merely having a computer on nearby will cause headaches, just that improperly using a computer (screen too bright/dark, font size, posture, etc) can cause strain on muscles and this headaches. You may have a health issue here. Please remember that correlation is not causation.

  • Nay_Sayer

    While reading this, please remember that correlation is absolutely not causation. This article is not scientifically sound, so please do not blame your health issues on computers. If you are experiencing the problems detailed in this article, see a health professional.

  • Apollo

    As a college student, I can relate to some of the “patterns.” I like the list alot because even when doing it, people don’t notice what they’re doing wrong which can lead to health issues as well as bigger problems. Also thanks for the heads up about attention span because I think my mind thinks I have ADD or something like that and it’s something I need to work on. Thanks for the educational article.