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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The Shoulder & Repetitive Strain Injuries

Anatomy

The shoulder is a unique joint in the body. It has a great deal of mobility in order to allow us to reach and perform activities away from our body. The cost of this mobility is a lack of stability. Most of the stabilizing forces at the shoulder are muscular and ligamentous rather than bony. These soft tissues that provide the shoulder motion and stability can be at risk for repetitive strain injuries.

The shoulder is composed of three bones: the clavicle (collar bone), the scapula (shoulder blade), and the humerus (long bone of the upper arm). The rotator cuff surrounds the shoulder and provides muscular stability for the humeral head. The shoulder blade controls shoulder motion. Nine of the fifteen muscles that attach to the scapula provide this motion.

RSI

With computer, desk, assembly or other types of hand intensive work, the neck and shoulders round forward and the upper arm tends to rotate inward. The chest muscles become tight. The muscles of the back weaken and stretch. The upper trapezius (the big, bulky muscles that make up the top of the shoulder) try to compensate by working harder than they should. Muscle knots and tension develop. The arms feel tired and weak. Eventually, this muscular imbalance can cause a tendonitis in the rotator cuff (supraspinatus) or in the biceps where it attaches to the humerus. Or the fluid cushion (bursa) between the rotator cuff and the shoulder bones can become inflamed (bursitis).

Poor posture can be the primary factor in developing shoulder pain. Other activities that tend to cause problems are prolonged or repetitive overhead reaching (such as when lifting binders or books down from shelves above the computer) or holding the arms elevated while typing, using the mouse, or performing other hand work. Tichauer (1978, The Biomechanical Basis of Ergonomics) discovered that a chair height that was 3 inches too low for a worker caused excessive shoulder movements and reduced productivity by as much as 50%.

RSI Prevention for Shoulder Pain

  • Neutral and Relaxed Shoulder Positioning
    • Postural awareness is of major importance in injury prevention.
    • The shoulders (upper trapezius muscle) should be relaxed while working.
    • Arms should be positioned at your side with the ears, shoulders and elbows in line.
    • Avoid rounding the shoulders or hunching forward
    • Maintain a neutral neck posture.
  • Ergonomics
    • Chair height should allow you to reach the work surface/keyboard/mouse with the elbows opened slightly greater than 90 degrees and the shoulders relaxed, not elevated.
    • Use of arm supports has been debated in the therapeutic community. The shoulders should be allowed to move freely to position the hands so that excessive movement is not required at the more vulnerable elbows, wrists and fingers. However, unsupported use of the arms is a contributing factor in shoulder pain.
    • If using arm rests, they should be positioned at a height that allows the shoulders to be relaxed. Do not plant the forearms down on the rests while typing. Allow the forearms to glide over the rests unless taking a break from hand activity.
    • Articulating Arm Rests are a good option for providing support with movement.
    • Position your activity and supplies so that repetitive or sustained lifting or reaching is avoided.
    • If you do need to reach frequently overhead, use a step-stool so that the object you are reaching for is closer to you with less shoulder stretch needed.
    • Keep the keyboard and mouse in close to the body
    • Place frequently needed items in a close work envelope between hip and shoulder height.
  • Tension and Stress
    Many people hold tension in their shoulders. When feeling stressed, try to break the cycle by practicing diaphragmatic breathing techniques or taking a quick break away from the demanding situation. Perform some shoulder rolls emphasizing the backwards and downwards movements.
  • Exercise
    • Stretch frequently throughout the day.
    • Take frequent micro-breaks.
    • Try these exercises to recreate muscular balance in the shoulder complex. Remember, these exercises should not cause pain. Start slowly using a light weight. Add additional weight and repetitions gradually.
      • Strengthen the Rotator Cuff with Side-Lying External Rotation
        • Hold a light weight in your right hand. Lying on your left side, hold your right elbow tucked in at your side. Not moving the elbow away from your side, lift your hand towards the ceiling, then smoothly and slowly move your hand towards your stomach. Repeat 8-12 times. Perform 1-2 sets. Repeat with the other arm.
      • Stretch the Pecs with the Doorway Stretch
        • Stand in a doorway facing the doorway jam. Bend your elbow placing one forearm along the doorway jam with the hand at about head height. Slowly rotate your body away from the doorway jam until you feel a nice stretch in your chest muscle close to your shoulder. Hold for 20-30 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times. Repeat with the other arm.
      • Towel Stretches for Internal and External Rotation
        • Drape a towel over your left shoulder holding to the upper end of the towel with your left hand. Place your right arm behind your back and grab on to the end of the towel. With your left hand, pull your right hand up along the spine as if you are trying to scratch an itch as high up your back as possible. Hold for 20 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times. Then with your right hand, pull the towel down, stretching the left hand along the spine as if you are trying to scratch an itch as low on the back as possible. Hold for 20 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times. Repeat with the other arm.
      • Shoulder Opener
        • Lie on a Foam Roller with the spine and heal supported and the arms relaxed at your sides. Support the arms with pillows if needed. Let the shoulders roll back around the foam roller. Stretch for a minimum of 3 minutes. Perform diaphragmatic breathing while stretching.

Pain-Free Mousing

When performing ergonomic assessments, the main factors that I have found that contribute to mousing pain include:

  • Mouse Positioning
  • Mouse Movement
  • Muscular Tension When Using the Mouse
  • Forearm Position

Here are some tips to help reduce your risk of developing a repetitive strain injury or tendinitis from mouse use.
MOUSE POSITIONING

Causes of Pain

  • Reaching forward for the mouse onto a desk that is higher than the keyboard.
  • Reaching for a mouse placed to the far side of the keyboard.

Tips for Preventing Pain

  • Position the mouse in a more comfortable and ergonomic location
    • Use an attachable mouse holder that adjusts to fit over numerical key pad (if you do not use the 10-key) or as closely to it as possible.
    • Or use a keyboard bridge over the numerical keys if you do not use the 10-key portion of the keyboard.
    • Or use a keyboard station such as the Contour Roller Pro which has a rollerbar mouse that is positioned immediately below the space bar of the keyboard.

MOUSE MOVEMENT

Causes of Pain

  • Excessive wrist or arm movement when activating the mouse.
  • Planting the wrist down and swiveling the mouse using wrist motion.
  • Planting the wrist down placing pressure against the carpal tunnel.
  • Bending the wrist backward (extended) when using the mouse.

Tips for Preventing Pain

  • The mouse should be at about the same level of the keyboard and positioned as closely to the keyboard as possible.
  • Avoid reaching forward, up, or out to the side when using the mouse. Position the mouse to avoid these movements (see mouse positioning tips).
  • Activate the mouse by using small movements from the shoulder and elbow muscles rather than the wrist muscles.

Ergonomics

  • Keep the shoulders relaxed.
  • The elbow should be held loosely at the side in a direct line under the shoulder.
  • The wrist should be held in a neutral position (not bent forward or back or angled to one side or the other).
  • Do not plant the wrist down on that desk or on a wrist rest. Glide the wrist over surfaces always maintaining the neutral position.

MUSCULAR TENSION WHEN USING THE MOUSE

Causes of Pain

  • Forcefully squeezing the mouse between the thumb and small finger.
  • Forcefully activating the mouse buttons or switches.

Tips for Preventing Pain

  • Hold the mouse as lightly as you can while still maintaining control.
  • Keep the fingers held loosely against buttons and switches, not floating tensely in the air.
  • Do not pound mouse buttons or forcefully squeeze switches. Use only the lightest force necessary to activate controls.
  • Using a wireless mouse can eliminate the tension of pulling against the cord (even these small tensions add up by the end of the day).
  • Use a mouse and mouse pad that can be switched easily from the right to the left hand to share the work load between the two hands.
  • A keyboard station such as the Contour Roller Pro that incorporates a rollerbar mouse eliminates the need to hold the mouse.
  • Research mousing options such as the NoHands foot-activated mouse or a head-activated mouse placed in a baseball cap.
  • Perform forearm and wrist stretches throughout the day.
  • Gently stretch the thumb into the hitch-hiking position.

FOREARM POSITIONING

Causes of Pain

  • The forearm rotated into the palm-down position for long periods of time.

Tips for Preventing Pain

  • Vertical mice are good choices as the hand shake position with the forearm neutral rather than palm down can relieve forearm stress.
  • Stretch into the palm-up position throughout the day.

What is Cubital Tunnel Syndrome?

Everyone has now heard of carpal tunnel syndrome. The term is seen in everyday magazines, is used commonly in texts and tweets, and is even the name of a musical group. Carpal tunnel syndrome is the most commonly occurring nerve compression of the upper extremity. It is caused by the median nerve becoming pinched at the wrist causing numbness in the thumb, index finger, middle finger, and partially in the ring finger. It can cause weakness in the muscles at the base of the thumb and cause pain that radiates up the arm into the shoulder and neck. Like the older sibling who gets blamed for all wrong-doing, carpal tunnel syndrome has become synonymous with all hand pain.

Lurking in the shadow of carpal tunnel syndrome’s fame is its counterpart, cubital tunnel syndrome. Cubital tunnel syndrome is the second most commonly occurring nerve compression of the upper extremity. It is caused when the ulnar nerve, running parallel to the median nerve in the forearm, becomes pinched at the elbow. When you hit your “funny bone”, you are actually hitting this nerve. The ulnar nerve is responsible for sensation in the small finger and partially in the ring finger. Trauma to the ulnar nerve can cause pain in the small finger side of the hand that radiates into the forearm towards the inside of the elbow. It can cause weakness to the small muscles in the hand and, if severe, loss of coordination.

It is time to bring cubital tunnel syndrome out from behind carpal tunnel syndrome’s shadow. If diagnosed correctly, there are simple modifications that can be made to help relieve the symptoms of this frequently overlooked nerve compression.

  • Avoid bending the elbow for any length of time. This stretches the nerve tautly through the cubital tunnel. Activities that can irritate the nerve and simple solutions include:
    • sleeping with the elbow bent – use pillows for support; wrap an ace wrap or towel loosely around the elbow to keep it from bending; avoid sleeping on the arm or sleeping with the hands positioned up behind the head.
    • holding a phone to the ear – use a head-set.
    • blow-drying hair.
    • driving – adjust the seat position so that the elbows are open and relaxed; avoid resting the arms on the elbow supports or window sill.
    • computer work – position the height of the keyboard and mouse so that the elbows are open a bit more than 90 degrees.
    • playing the guitar (because of the positioning of the fretting hand) – warm-up prior to playing, take frequent breaks, stretch often. 
  • Don’t lean on the elbow.
  • Don’t lean on the forearm, especially if it is placed over the hard edge of a desk or table. Place a soft support or cushioning under the forearm.
  • Position the mouse and the keyboard in front of you so that you do not need to reach forward or out to activate them.
  • The mouse and keyboard should be low enough that the shoulders are relaxed.
  • Activate the mouse by keeping the wrist solid and using shoulder movement for positioning.
  • Keep the wrists neutral. The wrists should be flat over the keyboard, not bent forward or back. The wrists should not be angled towards the small finger while typing. Using a split keyboard or a vertical mouse may help position the wrists correctly and relieve tension in the forearms.
  • Avoid repetitive elbow bending and straightening.
  • Avoid over-developing the triceps during gym and sports activities.

As with other injuries, it is important to:

  • take frequent breaks when performing repetitive work.
  • gently stretch the forearm muscles.
  • warm-up prior to performing strenuous activity.
  • avoid or modify activities that cause pain.
  • use cold packs to control post-activity pain when necessary.

Need more information?  Or want to share your experiences or ask questions of our community?  Visit us online at HandHealthResources.com or via our Facebook or Twitter accounts.

Let’s put some caring back into healthcare!  Marji