Q: My work requires me to do a lot of typing on the office computer. Recently, I have noticed that my wrists and lower arms have a dull aching feeling. At first, I thought that I had sprained something, but the pain seems to be getting worse. This only happens to me after I have had a typing session. Have you heard of similar complaints and if so, what can be done?
A: You could have something known as carpal tunnel syndrome. This is an affliction of the 1980s. In the last decade, computers became more commonplace, and more reports of this malady have surfaced. Although typewriters have been around a long time, computers do more than typewriters so there are more people using computers and using them for longer periods.
The carpal tunnel is a pathway, said Dr. John Whelton, a West Palm Beach, Fla., rheumatologist. The base of this pathway is formed by the bones of the wrist. And the carpal ligament at the base of the palm forms the tunnel's roof. It's this ligament that probably is causing your problem.
When you type, your hands are placed in an unnatural position, causing stress on the ligament. This stress can cause the ligament to swell. The swelling causes the carpal tunnel to narrow and compress what's inside. What's inside are nerves, which have the consistency of jelly. As the tunnel narrows, pressure is placed on the nerve's gelatinous structure and you feel pain. Symptoms include decreased sweating, tingling and numbness, followed by increasing amounts of pain.
The pain usually affects the base of the thumb, the index and middle finger, and the inner portion of the fourth finger. In certain cases, this pain can be felt in the forearms and as far up as the shoulders. The pain is usually intermittent, worse on the dominant hand, and can come on at nighttime.
Whelton suggests that you see your family doctor to rule out things such as diabetes mellitus, an underactive thyroid, pregnancy, trauma and various forms of arthritis that also can cause these symptoms.
Carpal tunnel syndrome can be treated by an orthopedist or rheumatologist. Possible courses of treatment are steroid injections and anti-inflammatory medications or, in persistent and severe cases, surgery. Your doctor may try the use of a "cock-up resting forearm splint." This acts as a brace on your wrists while leaving your fingers free to type.
Another device is offered by Ergonomic Computer Products (415) 673-5757. The Padded Wrist Rest sells for $39.95.
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Send your questions to Craig Crossman, Business Monday, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Please include your phone number.