Prevention of carpal tunnel syndrome
Originally Published: September 1, 1994 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: June 12, 2009
I find that after only a fair amount of typing on my computer keyboard, I have achy wrists — it's really getting quite uncomfortable. I am thirty-eight years old, a full-time graduate student, and a full-time professional writer (prose as well as scripts), so I need to do a lot of typing! I am worried about carpal tunnel syndrome (although I don't think that's what I have, at least not yet — the symptoms are mostly aching in both wrists, on the top). What do you suggest? I can't afford to lose my typing ability (I have a friend who is forty-two, a professional writer, and panicked because she has terrible burning and pain in her arm which has been diagnosed as "over-use syndrome" from typing — I can't let this happen to me!)
Signed, Typing Alot
Dear Typing Alot,
Carpal tunnel syndrome is not a new disorder, it is simply the degree to which it has been affecting people that has grown steadily. One study found that over a 10 year period that repetitive motion disorders incresed from 18% to 48% of all occupational injuries. Using a computer as a professional writer as much as you do has eliminated the range of tasks that used to be inherent in your work. Previously, using a typewriter meant making corrections by hand, rolling paper into and out of the carriage, and pausing to look up the correct spelling of a word. These "break" jobs have all been automated on the computer, so that sitting at a keyboard for long periods of time provides no variation and no "wrist rest" time. The resultant stress is far more than the wrist was anatomically designed to handle.
Inflammation and swelling in the wrist's carpal tunnel is caused by repetition without adequate recovery time. A study sponsored by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that more than eight or nine repetitions per minute did not allow wrists sufficient time to produce enough lubricating fluid. The friction, in the absence of lubrication, leads to swelling and scarring. The swollen and scarred tissue then presses against the median nerve running through the carpal tunnel directly below. In time, the pressure atrophies the nerve, and the muscles of the thumb and the first three fingers that the nerve controls. The hand or hands cease to function adequately and the keyboardist can become permanently disabled.
Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) and other repetitive stress injuries can be prevented. Consider the following options:
- try wearing a preventative splint when typing
- take breaks from your typing
- vary your tasks
- gently rubbing or shaking your hand, and running warm or cold water over your hand
- keep good posture
- have your workspace evaluated for erognomic effectiveness
- avoid tobacco use (contributes to blood flow issues), and
- aim for a healthy weight
You may also want to check out the answer to "Computer hazards?" in the Go Ask Alice! archives for more information. Buring pain, like your friend, is not an automatic outcome of the frequent use of computers for writing. You've got options and don't forget that prevention is the best approach!