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Can your computer hurt you?

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Can your computer hurt you?

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1990, 1992, The Syracuse Newspapers


Can your computer really cause you pain?

Five years ago, this would have been a silly question. But recently, many computer users have begun to notice stiffness and pain in their wrists and hands.

The stiffness can even turn to an actual injury. In its worst case, the injury can make it impossible to move your hands.

The name for this problem, caused by repetitive typing on keyboards, is "cumulative trauma disorder." When the stiffness turns into injury, the most common injury is called carpal tunnel syndrome.

It's a serious matter. Both my wrists are injured from carpal tunnel syndrome, and there are times when they hurt too much to let me type. Two of the editors I work with suffer from it, too.

The problem has been around a long time. It's been recognized for more than a century. Jackhammer operators were the first to complain to doctors.

In both jackhammer operation and keyboard typing, the wrists can be flexed hundreds or thousands of times in rapid, jerky movements. After years of this sort of abuse, nerves and cartilage can become pinched inside the wrist.

Carpal tunnel syndrome can be avoided in two ways-by changing your typing style (holding your wrists steady while putting all the motion in your fingers) and by using a keyboard and typing table that make easy typing possible.

If you feel stiffness in your wrists or a tingling feeling in your hands and fingers while typing or after you've used your computer, be sure to mention the problem to a doctor. Sometimes treatment can be as simple as wearing a wrist brace for a few hours a week. But if you delay, the problem will only get worse.

1992 :

I want to buy a new gadget. You may think it's silly, but ever since I saw it advertised, I've wanted it.

It's an electric pepper mill. You push a button on the top, and it grinds out your pepper at the dinner table. You don't have to twist it at all.

Don't laugh. This isn't one of those old Bob Newhart electric-fork jokes. An electric pepper mill is a real thing—and very much needed around my house.

Both my wife and I have carpal tunnel syndrome, caused by an adult lifetime of typing on keyboards.

We're both editors, and I'm a writer and computer programmer. She types faster and harder than I do, and I type for longer periods each day. The result has been steady damage to our wrists, concentrated in the tunnels that provide a passageway for the nerves, arteries and tendons that run from our arms to our hands.

What happens is a progressive narrowing of the tunnels until they choke off the passageway. The constant pressure can make both hands immobile.

Some days are worse than others. On the good days, carpal tunnel syndrome shows up as nothing more than a tingling numbness along the edge of the palm. On the bad days, the wrist swells up from pain and locks up. Even the slightest movement is impossible when that happens.

We each have wrist braces, supplied free by the company we work for, and the ergonomics experts—specialists in adapting working spaces and equipment to workers—who interviewed everyone at the office have prompted the purchase of new chairs. And we now have wrist rests on some of the keyboards we type on.

But the problem has not gone away. It is an occupational hazard.

In the late 1800s, doctors used to call carpal tunnel syndrome "jackhammerer's syndrome." The rapid pogo-stick-like jerking motion of a jackhammer can wreck a worker's wrists in a couple of years.

Later, as the technology of the work force changed, carpal tunnel syndrome was referred to as the "secretary's disease." But now, with computer keyboards common in many homes and most offices, anyone who types for long periods can succumb.

The first doctor I went to when I felt a numbness on the edges of my palms, eight years ago, told me I had a case of tennis elbow in my wrists.

"Stop playing tennis and racquetball for a while," he said.

Since I hadn't played tennis or racquetball in about 15 years, I found another doctor. This one knew a little more about modern injuries. She diagnosed the problem after a couple of quick tests.

At my last checkup, another doctor looked at the medical history form I had filled out and asked how long I had been using a computer. He looked at me in a strange way, as if he were going to share an embarrassing secret, and told me he, too, had carpal tunnel syndrome.

You may have it, too. One estimate that I saw placed the number of possible sufferers at 20 million in the United States alone. Of that number, the study said, 80 percent—that's 16 million—may not realize what is causing their pain and stiffness.

If you have the kind of pain or discomfort I'm describing, tell your doctor to check for carpal tunnel syndrome and other hand-disabling problems that can result from keyboard work, such as tendonitis. And find ways to give your wrists a break when you are typing.

You may even want to have the doorknobs at your home or office changed to levers so that you don't have to do a lot of twisting. There are many other things that can be done; your health insurance company should have some tips.

And you might look, as I'm doing, for that electric pepper mill. Some gadgets are just plain common sense.