Bad rap for computers

Study challenges assumptions about causes of carpal tunnel syndrome.

New research suggests that, contrary to popular belief, computer users are not more susceptible to carpal tunnel syndrome. But other workplace health experts say that besides some flaws in the research, the findings miss an important point.

Office work can contribute to employee pain. Repetitive strain injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome are a problem and organizations that want a more productive workforce should help employees relieve that pain, say experts who dispute the new research from the Mayo Clinic.

Refuting the popular notion about CTS and computer use, Rochester N.Y.-based medical research centre the Mayo Clinic maintains there isn’t clear evidence about what activities cause carpal tunnel syndrome. A study of computer users at the Mayo Clinic, released last month, concluded that, “the frequency of carpal tunnel syndrome in computer users is similar to that in the general population.”

Having reviewed the study, Donald Cole of the Toronto-based Institute for Work and Health said he had some reservations about the conclusions.

“I don’t think it stands up to the other literature and other research that has shown an association between carpal tunnel syndrome, posture, repetitive work and awkward postures,” he said.

The study was only conducted on Mayo Clinic employees. And important factors were left undiscussed. For example, time usage and workstation design. If employees aren’t using computers correctly they could suffer pain. The Mayo Clinic could have exceptionally well-designed work stations, Cole said.

Actual incidents of CTS have long been overestimated, said Chris McIntyre, president of Kitchener, Ont.-based Ergonomics at Work. CTS is actually a very specific condition that isn’t nearly as prevalent as people think, he said. But that isn’t to say people can’t suffer discomfort from improper computer use, he added. It is just that everybody seems to have heard of carpal tunnel syndrome so that when someone feels pain in the lower arm, they assume it is CTS.

“I would say 90 per cent of people that call us for office-related issues say they have CTS, but in reality it is less than five or 10 per cent,” he said.

There is no question office work can contribute to employee pain, said Cole. Maybe it isn’t CTS, but office work can be one important contributing factor to musculoskeletal pain and employee suffering.

“I’m not saying work is only thing causing these things,” he said. “But the fact is that you still have employees experiencing pain. That is going to impair their productivity at work.”

In 1996, the human resources department at the Toronto Star was noticing an increase in the number of people reporting symptoms of repetitive strain injuries, said Lily Broderick, a health and safety assistant with the newspaper.

There were a lot of reports about numbness and tingling in the hands and arms. They began an aggressive effort to combat the problem, beginning with surveys and thorough ergonomic assessments. A physiotherapist was brought on board full time to work with Toronto Star staff. Eventually a RSI committee was formed and the members, mainly from the joint health and safety committee, still meet monthly. Now anytime somebody experiences a symptom, it is immediately reported to a supervisor and an ergonomic assessment is done. They make sure the chair is at the right height and the keyboard is positioned right.

“We had a few cases where it was definitely carpal tunnel, but not a large portion,” Broderick said.

She agreed that people may have been surprised at the Mayo conclusions because people so often associate computer use with CTS and other repetitive strains. But there are a lot of other factors that contribute to the problem. And early detection and intervention has gone a long way to improving the situation at the Star. The physiotherapist now works with staff to look at possible vitamin deficiencies, for instance, and awareness is being raised about the early signs of osteoporosis.

Non-occupational issues will also be taken into account when helping employees, explained Broderick. There are so many different causes for the symptoms, some may be caused by work and some just aggravated by work with a root cause somewhere else.

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