Controversy over the increase in carpal tunnel syndrome cases and some preventative advice.
Judging from media reaction to last fall's Bureau of Labor Statistics report on industrial illness, you'd think everyone who sits down at a computer suffers from weakness, tingling, numbness in the fingers, and/or pain in the wrist and forearm. Those are the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, which has long taken its toll on arm-swingers like jackhammer operators and now, statistical evidence suggests, is running wild in the office as well.
But medical evidence suggests it's not. What triggered the press's alarm was the bureau's finding that conditions caused by repeated motion, pressure, or vibration have "over the past several years . . . significantly increased." During that time, not so incidentally, the number of desktop computers has multiplied like crazy. Even so, the trend could be as much a quirk of modern-day industry as of bad ergonomics, says Boston hand surgeon Andrew Terrono. "The number of specialized jobs is increasing everywhere," he concludes, "so more people do the same thing all day." His prescription: stop every so often and walk around.
That's a regimen also prescribed within the city limits of San Francisco. Authorities there passed a law mandating humane treatment of workers who use video display terminals. The controversial statute applies to businesses with 15 or more employees. It requires that any employee who toils before a screen for more than four hours a day be provided with an adjustable swivel chair, a table with lots of leg space, a glare filter, and discrete lighting. Employees must also get a 15-minute break every two hours. Employers unwilling to comply are subject to fines of up to $500 a day, or the cost of a mover's bill to relocate.
Those companies can run, but they can't hide -- especially if they take aging computer apparatuses with them. Not even a decade ago, microcomputer pioneers were dubbing their newly aching extremities "MacHands" and blaming the affliction on computer mice. After nearly nine years of selling and producing essentially one-size-fits-all units, Logitech Inc., of Fremont, Calif., is revamping its line of mice in hopes of easing the pain. There will be mice not only for hands of various sizes but for different fingers, too: some models are designed so the thumb does the clicking, thus putting less strain on the wrist.
Luckily, carpal tunnel syndrome in white-collar circles is "a curable disease -- about 85 times out of 100," ventures Robert J. Banco, an orthopedic surgeon in the high-tech outskirts of greater Boston. Most sufferers recover in six to eight weeks without surgery, he says, and, aided by splints and medication, can remain at work throughout. -- Robert A. Mamis
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An Ergonomically Sound Office * Contoured seat that supports legs at a 90-degree angle
* VDT two feet away at 20 degrees below eye level
* Keyboard position two to four inches below standard desktop, so arms and hands are parallel to the floor while typing