The New Computer Health Threat

The New Computer Health Threat

By Cassandra Ward

©2001, Cassandra Ward

Thanks to ergonomics, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) is often considered to be a thing of the past. We now have to worry about something even more insidious afflicting our hands as we do computer work: tendonitis.

Tendonitis, like CTS, is an ailment that comes from repetitious motions over a period of time. Many people are getting tendonitis from mousing as well as keyboarding. This is a potentially serious disability, and can put you out of work and cut your off from a normal life for years.

In 1990 (when CTS was the rage), I was a records clerk for a major university hospital. My job was to file lab results into charts. I averaged 300 reports/hour, five nights a week. I started the job in May. By the end of July, I was having mild tingling in my wrist and slight weakness when I tried to grip small things with my right (dominant) hand. I ignored it. By the beginning of October, pain arced from my wrist into my hands and all the way up to my shoulder. I took a lot of over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers to keep going. (I was a single mother of two kids under the age of three at the time.) By the beginning of November, I could no longer hold anything in my right hand and was in such pain, I cried constantly. It felt as if someone had laced my wrist and, to a lesser extent, my arm (all the way back beyond the shoulder) with molten steel that would never cool. The OTC painkillers brought no relief. It took me almost three hours to write out my rent check for all the pain and tears.

I was finally diagnosed in February ’91 with DeQuervains Tendonitis (inflammation of the major tendon in the thumb). They finally took me off work and I was on workers’ compensation for three years until my hand could function again.

As my history proves, it’s very easy to overlook the little pains as something that just happened that day. It’s a dangerous mindset to get into even though it’s a very common one.

There is a single muscle in the hand, located at the base of the thumb. The remainder of your hand is completely moved by tendons. That’s it: tendons. Thus, getting an inflamed tendon in your hand is a serious matter.

I’ve heard people say that they’re afraid they have CTS. There’s a couple quick checks you can do yourself to see if you have CTS or DeQuervains Syndrome.

Does the pain originate in the center of your wrist (palm side)? Do your fingers tingle and/or go numb? If yes to either, especially the second question, then you most likely have CTS. The Carpal Tunnel is the area where 3 of the 4 nerves in your hand go through the wrist joint at the center of the palm. (The other runs up along the pinkie side.) If you have an inflammation of that area, the nerves are likely to be pinched and you can temporarily lose sensation there.

Now, a test for tendonitis: Bend your thumb into your palm and grasp it with your fingers. Next, bend your wrist toward the pinkie side as far as you can. If you have pain in the wrist tendons, then you most likely have DeQuervain’s.

Please take a few moments, several times in your day, to be aware of your hands and wrists. The sooner you deal with discomfort, the sooner you can tend to it. If you do not become aware of it, or ignore it as I did, you can drive yourself to the point of intense, constant pain and having your hand become completely useless. While there is surgery for this condition, I did not qualify for it. Thus, I am still sporadically suffering from it today, more than a decade later. The doctors assure me that I will have this condition for the remainder of my life and I am now legally disabled under the ADA laws. (For more information on ADA: )

If you start having pain in your hands that could be tendonitis, there are a few things you can do.

First, call and make an appointment with your doctor or, if this is work related, get down to your employer’s clinic as soon as possible.

Second, stop doing the activity that’s causing the pain as soon as you’re aware of it. If it’s an activity you have to continue doing, find a different way of doing it: for instance, mouse with the other hand or get a track ball.

Third, apply an ice pack to the area that’s hurting for 15-20 minutes. (Note: a bag of frozen peas works marvelously for this—don’t eat them after you’ve used them, however.) Ice reduces the swelling caused by the inflammation, and decreases the pain faster and healthier than taking OTC pain killers.

Fourth, if you can get one, put a splint on your hand. If you are having pain anywhere connected with your thumb, it is important to get a thumb-spica splint (meaning that the thumb is immobilized). These are best fitted by a doctor. It is possible to purchase thumb-spica splints yourself; however, the cost runs from $35-60 plus shipping and handling. I have never seen a thumb-spica splint for sale in stores and the wrist-spica splints you will find there will not help you.

Fifth, and surprisingly last, is to take drugs. Over the years, I have been on assorted medications for the condition. I also built up a tolerance for several of the drugs, meaning I had to take nearly lethal doses to get an inkling of relief. This is something that needs to be monitored closely by your doctor. Please be aware of the amounts you are taking at any time, and ask your doctor if you have any concerns or questions about medications.

It is possible to come back from crippling tendonitis and work, type and function again. I’ve had to make a lot of adjustments on how I use my hand (holding pens, carrying things, handling thin objects, etc.). Ten years ago, my doctor said that I’d be crippled for life and would have to learn to be left-handed. Today, not only am I still right-handed, but I also hold down a full-time office job, continue to write, and have even learned to use chopsticks. However, while it is possible, I can also assure you that I cried a lot of tears, considered self-mutilation too seriously on too many occasions, and wasn’t sure any of it was going to work out in the end.

Take care of your hands, for without your hands, how will you take care of yourself?

 For more information on DeQuervain’s Syndrome, see: