Avoiding Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Repetitive wrist motions in activities such as typing can cause a painful condition in the wrists and hands known as carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). Every year, thousands of office workers contract CTS, a debilitating injury that costs millions of dollars to employers, as well as the health-if not the livelihoods-of employees.
Although typewriter keyboards have been part of many people’s working lives for over a century, they didn’t cause CTS. Time-saving computer keyboards, ironically, are the source of the problem. Workers may be happy that they don’t need to interrupt their work every few minutes to change ribbons or insert a new piece of paper. But the uninterrupted, repetitive motions that characterize computer keyboard usage (particularly data entry) open the door to trouble. A data entry clerk who types 40 words per minute could perform the same repetitive motion nearly 80,000 times in one workday.
Workers in other industries, such as food packing and automobile assembly, have suffered from repetitive-motion injuries for years. But the condition went largely unreported until recently-perhaps because it now afflicts large numbers of people who work in media.
What causes carpal tunnel syndrome? It happens when the median nerve gets damaged. The median nerve passes through the arm and wrist into the hand, on the palm side. That nerve supplies the thumb, index finger, middle finger, and part of the ring finger with sensation and muscle control. It passes through a narrow space in the underside of the wrist called the carpal tunnel. Damage can cause severe swelling or compression of the nerve, possibly resulting in tingling in your hand, and numbness, or pain beginning at the tips of the thumb, index, or middle finger.
Dealing With the Pain
Symptoms of CTS span from occasionally annoying to frequently excruciating, and in rare cases, to complete disablement of the wrist muscles. If left untreated, CTS can progress from “just a little tingle in the fingers” to severe pain and possibly even numbness in the hands. Some believe that to get CTS, you must be predisposed to it.
Many of the things you can do to relieve or prevent CTS-such as taking frequent breaks and performing exercises-cut into productivity, so employers may not want you to do them on company time. However, I know of some employers who encourage employees to take exercise breaks.
To prevent CTS, try to keep repetitive movements to a minimum. Don’t type so quickly, and try to relax a bit, relieving tension and stress on the hand muscles and ligaments. Reducing the speed and force with which you touch the keys on your keyboard can reduce your risk of CTS. Try to take periodic breaks to relax your hands. If you follow these steps daily, you can prevent long-term work loss and medical expenses costing thousands of dollars.
Other things can help too. For instance, by positioning your computer display and keyboard properly, you can reduce the flexing at your wrist as you type.
Here are some guidelines:
- Always try to sit using good posture. After typing a while, just sit up straighter; you’ll feel an immediate improvement.
- Align the top of your video display with the middle of your forehead. Your eyes should be looking at a point that’s just about in the center of the video display. You won’t be as likely to slouch, thus bending your arms and wrists into the “risk” position.
- Position your keyboard so your arms can hang straight down from your shoulder to your elbow and slightly downward from your elbow to your hands. In addition, if you spend a lot of time typing on a keyboard, a wrist rest will be useful for relaxing your hands and wrists.
- Avoid a cold environment. Temperatures significantly lower than normal make the tendons in your hands less flexible and therefore more prone to irritation and swelling. It’s difficult for me to type in a cold room because my fingers feel stiff.
- An adjustable computer screen and a movable keyboard can help make your typing motions less repetitious. If you’re working with a laptop, move it around your desk periodically to adjust distances and viewing angle.
If you think you have CTS, see your doctor as soon as possible. The condition is progressive, and early treatment can prevent permanent damage or the need for radical measures. If you let it go too long without treatment, you may need surgery to relieve the pain. Your doctor may also recommend devices, such as straps or braces, that relieve the pain and are relatively inexpensive.
Exercises Will Help
You can do several exercises to help prevent CTS. If you sit for long periods typing, here are a few quick routines you can do throughout the day:
- Place your arms down at your sides and sit up straight. Stretch your fingers, and hold that position for a count of 10. Make a tight fist for five seconds, and then relax your fingers. Try to do this three times.
- Rest your right elbow on a table, and then gently pull back on the fingers of your right hand with your left hand. Hold the position for five seconds, and then repeat with the left hand.
- Put your hands over your head, and stretch as far as you’re able to. Now put your arms down and repeat this movement two more times.
- Don’t look at the monitor while you’re doing these exercises. Look at something as far away as possible. This will relax your eyes and reduce overall tension, making you less likely to stress your wrists as you work.
Pick one of these exercises and try it right now.
Excerpt from my online Keyboarding class.