Prevention of carpal tunnel syndrome

Dear Alice,

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!)


Typing Alot

Dear Typing Alot,

Physical discomfort can certainly be worrisome, especially when your profession (and love of the craft) depends on it. While it’s unclear whether your achy wrists are a sign of carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), a condition characterized by pain, numbness, and tingling in the hand and arm, it’s great that you’re being proactive about the discomfort you’re feeling. Whether or not you have CTS, there are some measures you can take to prevent your pain from getting worse or causing permanent damage.

Carpal tunnel syndrome usually results from increased pressure on the nerves and tendons in your wrist. Therefore, there are numerous risk factors that are associated with CTS. Some of the more common factors include:

  • Anatomy or how your body is built, such having smaller carpal tunnels, a history of a wrist fracture, dislocation, cyst, or tumor
  • A family history of the disorder
  • Nerve-damaging conditions or chronic illnesses, such as diabetes
  • Inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis
  • Imbalance of body fluids during pregnancy and menopause can occur, causing temporary CTS until the fluid balance is back to normal
  • Other medical conditions, such as menopause, obesity, thyroid disorders, kidney failure, alcohol abuse, and significant mental stress
  • Work-related factors such as using power tools that vibrate on a regular, long-term basis or job-related functions that involve repeatedly extending and flexing the wrist

List adapted from Mayo Clinic.

If you’re starting to experience some of the symptoms associated with CTS, speaking with a health care provider may be a good next step. Taking action early may prevent permanent damage. Folks with risk factors may choose to keep a particularly close look at how their wrists feel over time. As far as typing on a computer keyboard goes, however, you may be able to put your mind at rest — research suggests that doing a lot of typing is not necessarily a major risk factor; rather, it may reveal or exacerbate underlying CTS caused by other factors. Still, taking preventive measures may minimize your risk for CTS and reduce stress on the body.

So, what are these measures? They include work- and health-related habits; you may try some of the following to reduce any pain you’re already experiencing:

  • Reduce the amount of force needed to do manual tasks, such as typing or grip strength. For example, a cashier or a typist may try hitting the keys as softly as possible.
  • Use a chair that has good back support and adjustable height.
  • Take breaks often to gently stretch or shake the wrists and hands.
  • Avoid extreme bending of the wrist in any direction, if possible.
  • When you’re typing, keep your wrists at the same height as your elbows or slightly lower.
  • Keep your hands and wrists warm by wearing fingerless gloves.
  • Keep good posture.
  • Avoid using tobacco, as it can contribute to blood flow issues.
  • Aim for a healthy weight.
  • Yoga may help to improve wrist and grip strength, which may alleviate your symptoms as well.

Since there are other possible culprits for your wrist discomfort, it’s wise to investigate further with the help of a medical professional. Remember, you've got options and prioritizing prevention may help you keep pace with your prose — without pain.

Write on!

Last updated Dec 01, 2016
Originally published Sep 01, 1994

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