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How to avoid computer-induced arm pain

Steady mouse clicking may seem innocent, but many computer users find that pain starts in their arm and eventually spreads to their wrist and shoulder.

health-and-fitness Updated: Mar 04, 2009 17:11 IST
Aliki Nassoufis, DPA
Aliki Nassoufis, DPA

Repetitive strain is a creeping threat for any 21st century computer user. Steady mouse clicking may seem innocent, but many computer users find that pain starts in their arm and eventually spreads to their wrist and shoulder.

In the days of the good old typewriter, people suffered from so-called writer's cramp. Although the phrase has since been shelved, the problem still applies to anyone who spends hours at a desk.

"Anyone who hunches over a computer and makes a series of short, quick movements risks a painful inflammation of the lower arm and its musculature," said Nils Graf Stenbock-Fermor, head of the German Orthopaedic Association.

Nowadays, this is known as Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). Orthopaedist Oliver Dierk says the problem routinely spreads to the entire arm, through the shoulder and up to the neck.

Despite its long reach, the affliction went unnoticed for a long time. But, as it gained notoriety, more people have begun recognising the symptoms.

"Women can be more susceptible than men, but, in general, it depends on a person's career," said Ursula Marschall, a doctor and head of a special clinic that works with a German health insurer.

"The first signs usually range from prickling sensations to loss of feeling and numbness in the affected body parts," says Dierk. "Otherwise, it involves various pains that develop between the wrist and shoulder."

Initial symptoms usually break out after long periods working at a PC, but will disappear overnight. In chronic forms of the disease, pain breaks out during everyday activities like ironing or shifting gears in a car.

Stenbock-Fermor advises against trying to treat the problem with medication.

"You can use medication to minimise the symptoms," he says, adding, "But in the long term, they just mask the actual causes."

Therefore, it is important to take proactive steps to prevent the pain.

"You need to take care of acute arm afflictions," said Marschall.

"In therapy, stretching and strength-building exercises and exercise are used." Warmth can also be used to relax muscles while cold compacts can be used to relieve the pain.

The key is to take a comprehensive approach and not simply treat individual symptoms.

"The best thing to do is to change your work area," advised Dierk.

That could mean using ergonomic keyboards, hand rests and computer mice that are designed like joysticks and force the user's hand into a different position.

"You should also have a chair that doesn't force you to sit up too straight or hunch over and a monitor that can be adjusted according to viewing angle and the way a person sits."

Muscle relaxation techniques like autogenous training are also helpful.