Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Work injury for writers?

When we think of injuries in the workplace, we often think of lifting something and hurting your back, or a traumatic type of injury for construction workers. As a nurse, many of my co-workers had back injuries (as I did), but also managed to hurt various limbs from getting a bad bang against a piece of equipment or something like that.

Writers – and others who use the computer for long periods of time – can also get hurt if we’re not careful. Carpal tunnel and repetitive stress syndromes cause a lot of workplace pain and absence.

According to the US Department of Labor, repetitive motions such as those made by people who use computers or tools, or who are cashiers, have the highest rate of lost work days per year due to repetitive stress: a median of 23 days in 2002. That’s a significant number of lost work days, especially if you compare it to other injuries such as falls to a lower level (14 days), fires and explosions (12 days), transportation accidents (12 days), falls on the same level (9 days), over exertion (8 days) and so on.

Most times, repetitive motion disorders are easily prevented but not many people, including myself, take the proper measures to prevent it. Carpal tunnel syndrome itself isn’t always caused by repetitive stress though. The median nerve, which controls the palm side of the thumb and the fingers, runs from the forearm to the hand. When pressure is placed on the median nerve, it can cause irritation, swelling, or compression. The pressure can be caused by a variety of things, such a sprain or fracture to the hand or wrist, diseases like arthritis, or by work stress and repeated use of the hand in the same manner.

As with most injuries, the earlier carpal tunnel or a repetitive stress syndrome is diagnosed, the better it is for successful treatment. To check for carpal tunnel, besides a regular physical exam, a doctor checks for tenderness, swelling, and warmth in the area. Strength is important as well. There’s one way that a doctor can check on the spot as well. By placing the fingers on the median nerve, or tapping it, if you have carpal tunnel, you should feel a strong shock-like sensation, or at the very least, a tingling sensation.

A nerve conduction test may be an option. Electric shocks (small ones!) are sent to the nerve and the conduction time is measured.

Sometimes medications can help reduce the swelling and pain. Some doctors may inject a steroid or anesthetic medication directly into the painful area. Physiotherapy may be helpful for some people, to help stretch and strengthen the wrist. Surgery for carpal tunnel now is very common. It’s done with a local anesthetic.

Of course, the best treatment is for it not to happen at all, right? That means taking the advice of the experts who are trying to keep us from injuring ourselves. Don’t type non-stop for hours on end. Take frequent breaks and stretch your arms, hands, and wrists. Be sure your keyboard is at the correct height for your hands. Wear splints to keep your wrists straight if you have to. Keep your hands warm, even if it means wearing fingerless gloves. Be careful, if you’re pounding out the articles to make a living, unless you want to use speech recognition software exclusively, take care of those hands!

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1 comment:

Sue said...

I've been lucky so far. I thought I did something to my wrist in the fall, but I bought a wrist brace and did extra strength training and it feels good as new.