And It Hurts…Here…Because? Ergonomic Recommendations

The location of where you are experiencing pain while working at a desk or on a computer can often give clues as to what needs to be adjusted during an ergonomic intervention.  Here is a quick guide of worksite and work-method recommendations that may help when you are feeling pain in a specific area.

Finger Pain – May indicate arthritic joints, a trigger finger, or strain from overuse.  Avoid squeezing the mouse too hard or pounding the keyboard.  Keep a light touch when typing.  Hold your pen lightly when writing.

Thumb Pain– May indicate a trigger thumb or DeQuervain’s Tenosynovitis.  Often occurs from either squeezing the mouse too hard or from tensing the thumb (as if hitch-hiking) over the keyboard keys.  Keep the thumbs relaxed using only the minimal amount of force needed to control the mouse.  When typing, keep the thumbs relaxed and just hovering over the keyboard.  Don’t pound the space bar.  Also, when writing, use a larger-barreled pen and don’t squeeze the pen too tightly.  Keep the thumb tip relaxed and only slightly bent – it is common for people write with their thumb tips bent at an extreme angle.

Wrist Pain or Pain at the Base of the Hand/Thumb– May indicate a tendinitis where the wrist muscles attach (flexor or extensor tendinitis), DeQuervain’s Tenosynovitis, or Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.  These are often caused by swiveling the mouse in or by poor wrist positioning.  Keep the wrist neutral (flat – not bent forward or back or angled side-to-side; the middle finger should be in a parallel line with the forearm).  Initiate small movements to control the mouse from the elbow and shoulder.   Don’t squeeze the mouse too tightly – use only the minimal amount of force necessary to control it.  Check your keyboard size and fit.  Pain over the small finger side of the wrist is often caused by the outward angulation of the wrist required to rest your hand on the home keys.  Using an ergonomic split keyboard is a quick-and-easy way to provide neutral wrist positioning.

Elbow Pain – May indicate an inflammation where the forearm muscles attach into the upper arm bone at the elbow – Medial or Lateral Epicondylitis.  Can also be caused by several nerve compression syndromes that occur near the elbow – Cubital Tunnel Syndrome, Radial Tunnel Syndrome.  Check out the positioning of the keyboard height and mouse location.  When working at a computer, your ear, shoulder and elbow should be stacked in a vertical alignment.  If your elbow is not relaxed at your side, you may need to change positioning by lowering the keyboard surface or getting in closer to your desk.  The elbow should not be bent at more than a 90 degree angle while using the computer.  A mouse that positions the arm in a more neutral “hand-shake” position may also be helpful.  Don’t swivel the mouse from the wrist.  Also, keep the hand relaxed on the mouse and use only the smallest amount of force necessary to activate the mouse click.  Don’t hold the index finger stiffly over the mouse (as if pointing) and don’t pound the mouse buttons, especially with a straight finger.  Rather, keep the index finger slightly bent and lightly touching the mouse.

Shoulder Pain – Often caused by reaching forward for long periods of time for the keyboard or mouse.  When working at a computer, your ear, shoulder and elbow should be stacked in a vertical alignment.  If your elbow is not relaxed at your side, you may be reaching forward causing strain on the arm muscles.  It takes work to hold the arm in this position for long periods of time even if the work itself is not too forceful.  To keep the upper arm muscles more relaxed, you may need to lower the keyboard surface or get in closer to your desk.  Check your chair.  Are you sitting back in the char?  Does it provide proper lumbar support and seat depth?  Look at the arm rest height.  You may need to lower the arm rests in order to keep the shoulders relaxed.

Neck Pain, Eye-Strain & Headaches – Often caused by poor positioning of the monitor.  Position the monitor directly in front of the keyboard so you are not twisting the body while using the computer.  Check out the height and distance of the monitor.  It may need to be adjusted so that you can clearly see the monitor print without tipping the head forward or back.  Avoid using bifocals while on the computer.  If you work extensively from copy, keep the copy in front of the monitor or directly to each side.  Use a tray that holds the copy close to monitor height to avoid repetitively looking up-and-down from the copy to the monitor.  Use a phone headset to avoid cradling the phone between the shoulder and the ear if you need to type and talk at the same time.

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Radial Tunnel Syndrome

As a certified hand therapist, I often treat people suffering from the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). A less commonly known injury, but one that we are seeing more frequently in the clinic, is Radial Tunnel Syndrome (RTS). If you are experiencing an aching or burning sensation in the back of the forearm or over the back of the wrist or hand, you may have symptoms of RTS rather than CTS.

Anatomy

The radial nerve is one of three main peripheral nerves that provide sensation and power to the arm and hand (the other two are the median nerve and the ulnar nerve). The radial nerve leaves the spinal cord at the neck and travels down the arm and into the back side of the forearm. In the forearm it passes through the supinator muscle, the muscle that turns the palm up (such as when using a screwdriver).

The radial nerve is responsible for providing sensation to the back side of the forearm and the back of the hand. It is also responsible for providing power to the muscles that pull the wrist back and straighten the fingers at the large knuckle joint.

Causes of Radial Tunnel Syndrome

As the nerve travels down the arm, repetitive or forceful movements can cause friction at several sites along the nerve pathway as it passes through muscles and ligament bridges. Repetitive or forceful movements can also cause swelling in the tissues that surround the nerve. This compresses the nerve, pinching it and causing sensations of aching, burning, numbness and tingling.

Symptoms of Radial Tunnel Syndrome

Symptoms of RTS include an aching or burning pain over the back side of the forearm and/or into the back of the wrist. There may be tenderness over the back of the elbow and forearm close to the elbow. Pain may become worse with activities that require a lot of wrist movement (such as manipulating the mouse), finger movement (such as clicking the mouse), and palm up movements (such as using a screwdriver). With pressure against the tender area close to the elbow, you may experience a tingling or radiating pain. The arm may feel tired and heavy.  An aching pain may radiate down the arm into the hand or up into the shoulder.  The back of the hand, the index finger knuckle, and the muscular space between the index finger and the thumb may feel swollen.

Things to Help Prevent and Control Pain from RTS

If you are experiencing symptoms of RTS, here are a few things you might try to help you reverse the symptoms.

  • Rest as best as you can from the activities that are causing the problem.
  • A vertical mouse that places the forearm in a neutral position (the “handshake” position) may be helpful.
  • Do not swivel the mouse with wrist movement.
    • Keep the wrist neutral (straight and level, not bent forward or back or angled to either side) when typing and using the mouse.
    • Control the mouse by using the larger shoulder and elbow muscles to move it.
  • Keep the fingers relaxed on the keyboard and mouse.
    • Don’t forcefully straighten or lift the fingers while typing or clicking.
    • Use the least amount of pressure necessary to activate the keyboard and control the mouse.
  • Use a wrist brace to limit wrist movement and to help keep the muscles of the forearm relaxed.
  • Take frequent micro-breaks.
  • Use cold packs and hot packs.
    • A cold pack placed over the forearm muscles several times a day can help control swelling from overuse.
    • Hot packs can help improve flexibility.
    • Both can temporarily relieve pain.
  • Gently stretch the forearm muscles.
  • Avoid the following:
    • Heavy lift, grip or activities that twist the forearm.
    • Using a screwdriver   (Use electric tools whenever possible.)
    • Picking up luggage.
    • Weight-lifting.
  • Be careful of using tennis elbow straps that can place additional pressure on the radial nerve.
  • Seek medical attention if symptoms do not rapidly improve.

RTS is often confused with tennis elbow. Tennis elbow is an inflammation of the tendons as they attach on to the lateral epicondyle (the bony bump on the outside edge of the elbow). The tenderness associated with RTS is often a few inches farther down the forearm, more on the muscle than on the bone. A tendinitis pain is often sharper with activity and, unless it is a severe case, lessens with rest. Nerve pain, such as with RTS, can be more of an aching, burning pain that may become more severe after activity or at night. When seeking medical attention, be specific with your description of symptoms so that you can help your doctor diagnose the problem accurately.