I'll never forget visiting my colleague Cris in the hospital in September 1990, shortly after she came out of surgery to repair two herniated discs in her neck.
Cris, an energetic reporter and a vibrant friend, couldn't move her head. Ahead of her were eight months of forced bed rest. She has largely healed but still must avoid or minimize some of her favorite outdoor activities, such as skiing, swimming and tennis.
Years spent cradling a phone receiver between her neck and shoulders as she scribbled or typed notes while conducting interviews led to Cris's debilitating injury.
There is a simple and inexpensive way to avoid this increasingly common malady: using a telephone headset.
I've advocated using headsets since that visit to Cris, and I often repeat the story to colleagues in the newsroom when I see them cradling a phone. There's no excuse not to use a headset, I tell them, especially because my employer - like many companies - provides a free headset to any office worker who wants one.
The need for headsets is increasing as we get ever smaller cordless and wireless phones. Cradling one of the pint-size wonders requires hiking up your shoulder within an inch of your ear.
Preventing neck injury isn't the only reason to get a phone headset. Your ear won't be hot and sore after long conversations. Both hands will be free to pursue other tasks, from writing important information to weeding your flowerbeds. Headsets even add a small margin of safety to the inadvisable activity of talking on a wireless phone while driving.
Headsets for cordless and wireless phones are affordable, ranging from $10 to $50, and come in an almost bewildering array of styles. There are also affordable headsets for corded desk phones, though I will focus on headsets for the cordless and mobile varieties.
The good news for consumers, beyond declining prices and more styles, is consensus among phone and headset manufacturers on how to connect: the 2.5-millimeter jack, referring to the diameter of the hole into which the headset is plugged.
Nearly all headset-compatible cordless phones use a 2.5-mm jack, as do almost all headset-compatible wireless phones. The glaring exception is Nokia, the largest manufacturer of wireless phones, which refuses to use the 2.5-mm jack.
It's also worth knowing that, for the most part, any 2.5-mm headset will work equally well with cordless and wireless phones.
To get a sense of what's available, I borrowed models from three of the best-known names in wireless phone headsets:
Jabra (www.jabra.com) EarSet ($29). This is the original in-the-ear headset that makes strangers think you're talking to yourself. A colorful plastic knob goes in the ear, with an almost invisible microphone on the outside, so nothing surrounds your ear or goes over your head.
Testing with an AT&T; cordless phone and a Motorola wireless phone, I could hear clearly. But people on the other end of the line told me I sounded faint when using the EarSet with my cordless phone.
Plantronics (www.plantronics.com) M175 ($49). This is a top-of-the-line model offering an over-the-ear headband and an ear clip; the user decides which to snap into place.
The microphone sits at the end of four-inch boom and delivered great audio quality with my cordless and wireless phones. The M175 also has a volume control and microphone mute switch hanging in the middle of its cord and a microphone volume switch on the jack.
SyberSay Communications (www.sybersay.com) Earlite 640 ($49). This tiny unit with a built-in microphone sits above the ear, with a slender white tube going into the ear itself.
I felt like a Secret Service agent with the Earlite nestled against my head, but listeners told me I was hard to hear on my cordless and wireless phones. Also, the 640 got in the way when I took out my contact lenses and switched to glasses.
The varying performance doesn't necessarily mean one headset manufacturer is good and another is bad. Cordless and wireless phone-makers aren't consistent in the volume level of their 2.5-mm jacks, making some headsets too loud and others too soft.
Similarly, there's no single type of headset that's right for everyone. I have short hair and sometimes wear glasses, so I prefer headbands. Someone with long hair and no glasses might prefer an in-the-ear model. Those who are shy about appearing to carry on conversations with imaginary people might prefer a headset with a visible boom microphone.
There was one type of headset I deliberately didn't test: the earbud, which has a tiny earpiece and a microphone that's a bulge on the cord hanging just below your chin. I've used earbud headsets and found the earpiece prone to falling out of my ear and the microphone likely to twist in the wrong direction.
Finally, there was the CA-M800 from Coby Electronics (www.cobyusa.com), which I purchased last month at an electronics store for $12.99. This is strictly for talking on a wireless phone while driving, something I confess to doing on rare occasions. The simple but very effective CA-M800 has a small microphone that clips on your shirt and a cassette adapter that goes into a car stereo system with a tape deck. You speak to callers through the microphone and hear them through your car's speaker system.
Let me finish with a few words of wisdom:
Get headsets for every phone - whether corded, cordless or wireless - on which you are likely to hold long conversations. Your neck will thank you.
Push yourself into using a headset as often as possible. What at first seems like an effort will soon become a healthy habit.
Insist on a 2.5-mm jack in any cordless or wireless phone you buy.
Make sure there is a "no questions asked" return policy when you buy a headset, and don't get discouraged if you have to return a headset that doesn't feel comfortable or doesn't work well.
Drive carefully if you must use a headset.