Can spending too much time at your computer cause carpal tunnel syndrome? Or is that just a workplace myth that has no scientific basis whatsoever? Khevna Pandit talks to a few doctors to find out
If your job requires you to spend extended periods of time working at a computer, chances are that you’ve probably experienced a piercing pain shooting up and down your wrist at some point. The pain, although seemingly harmless, could be a precursor to a painful condition known as carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). This is an ominous sounding term, and for good reason. While most of us tend to ignore the pain, carpal tunnel sydrome can have serious consequences if left unaddressed.
What is it?
The carpal tunnel is a narrow passage formed by the bones of your wrist and a ligament where the palm and forearm meet. The roof of this tunnel is formed by a thick ligament and several tendons. Your median nerve — a major nerve in your forearm — passes through this tunnel. The carpal tunnel protects your median nerve as it runs from your forearm into your hand. Along with controlling some movement of your thumb, the median nerve is responsible for the sensation of touch in your thumb, index, middle and half of your ring finger. The pain in your wrist after long hours of typing is caused by an inflammation or swelling of the tendons in the carpal tunnel. Ignoring the pain exacerbates the pressure on the median nerve and this eventually leads to carpal tunnel syndrome.
Who is at risk?
While anyone can get carpal tunnel syndrome, the condition isn’t normally seen in people younger than 20-years-old. There are several myths regarding CTS risk factors — one misconception is that women above 50 years of age are at a greater risk. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, women are three times more likely than men to be diagnosed with CTS, regardless of their age or whether they work on a computer.
Is it a work myth?
CTS is a real thing, but does typing or using the computer for long hours really put you at risk? The theory has been dismissed quite a few times. But, Dr. Sachin Bhatt, an orthopedic surgeon at SRV Hospital, Mumbai, tells us, “It isn’t a complete myth; typing is not the only cause of CTS. Using a keyboard for long hours at a time won’t necessarily lead to CTS, but applying too much pressure while typing is definitely one of the reasons for the issue.”
Prevention is better than cure
CTS can be avoided at an early stage and you can prevent the condition from deteriorating. “Avoid spending too much time at your computer at a stretch. Take frequent breaks while working, giving your wrists a chance to relax. You can also practise wrist exercises to prevent CTS,” Dr. Sachin says. Paying attention to yourself and learning to recognise the signs will protect you from a more serious problem in the future.
Treatment for CTS
If you do develop CTS, what then? We spoke to Dr. Shruti Barve, a physiotherapist at Care24, who tells us about diagnosis and subsequent treatment of CTS. First, your doctor will administer these tests:
Phalen’s sign test You have to hold your arms out in front of you and then flex your wrists, letting your hands hang down for about 60 seconds. If you feel a tingling, numbness or pain in your fingers during these 60 seconds, you may have carpal tunnel syndrome.
Tinel test In this test, the doctor will tap or press on the median nerve in your wrist. If you feel a tingling in your fingers or if you feel something like an electric shock, you may have carpal tunnel syndrome.
If you’re diagnosed with CTS, you will have to undergo physiotherapy, which will include the following:
Gliding exercises Moving your fingers in a specified pattern of exercises may help your tendons and nerves glide more smoothly through your carpal tunnel.
Ultrasound Pulsed or continuous ultrasound directed at the carpal tunnel can reduce pain and numbness, and improve hand strength.
Splints Splints that immobilise the wrist in a neutral (unbent) position are most likely to relieve discomfort. The carpal tunnel is the widest in an unbent wrist. So, a splint to keep your wrist in this position reduces pressure on the median nerve, relieving your symptoms.