Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Diet & Fitness

Carpal tunnel may have been overstated

Nurse Terri Janda leads a program meant to prevent repetitive stress injuries at BlueCross BlueShield of Kansas. Some say programs such as these are the reason for a reduction in RSI cases.

Associated Press

Nurse Terri Janda leads a program meant to prevent repetitive stress injuries at BlueCross BlueShield of Kansas. Some say programs such as these are the reason for a reduction in RSI cases.

NEW YORK

Can a workplace epidemic be cured?

With the personal computing boom of the 1990s came thousands of "repetitive stress injuries" or "repetitive strain injuries." RSI became the hip medical acronym of the keyboard era, with subset "carpal tunnel syndrome'' the diagnosis of the day.

"At its height of diagnosis, anybody showing up at a doctor's office with wrist pain or hand pain was being diagnosed with carpal tunnel," said Carol Harnett, vice president of insurer Hartford Financial Services Group Inc.'s group benefits division.

Since then, carpal tunnel cases have plummeted, declining 21 percent in 2006 alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What changed?

First, it may not have been the epidemic it appeared to be.

A 2001 study by the Mayo Clinic found people who used computers up to seven hours a day had the same rate of carpal tunnel as the general population.

"Clearly, if keyboarding activities were a significant risk for carpal tunnel, we should have seen, over the last 10 to 15 years, an explosion of cases," said Dr. Kurt Hegmann, director of the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational & Environmental Health.

Blue-collar workers, especially those doing assembly-line work such as sewing, cleaning and meat or poultry packing, have a far greater incidence of carpal tunnel than white-collar workers, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

That may mean such disorders were overdiagnosed when they were most in the news, resulting in an artificially high number of cases by the late 1990s. During 1998, for instance, an estimated three of every 10,000 workers lost time from work because of carpal tunnel syndrome, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Many doctors have since dropped the term RSI, calling them "musculoskeletal disorders." Government agencies term them "cumulative trauma disorders."

Now, some experts think some of those patients had "referred pain" from trouble elsewhere, such as the neck. Other theories claim attention to ergonomics has prevented injuries or that they have become underreported because they lack the immediacy of a broken bone.

People who have had a cumulative trauma disorder say it can be debilitating. Clay Scott, now an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, developed severe wrist pain while enrolled at Harvard University. By the end of his senior year, he says, he was incapable of cutting food and opening doors.

His recovery started with physical therapy a few times a week and a home exercise program to stretch and strengthen his back and neck muscles. It took three or four years for him to recover, he said.

A growing number of businesses have focused on prevention.

Outdoor clothing company L.L. Bean Inc. halts its manufacturing line three times a day for mandatory five-minute stretches. BlueCross BlueShield of Kansas started a program in 1991, when costs of the injuries to its employees passed $500,000. It bought ergonomic chairs and desks, introduced ergonomic assessments for new employees during their first two weeks of work and hired two registered nurses to work with employees.

Since the program started, the company's workers' comp costs have fallen by 62 percent, said Terri Janda, a nurse who leads the BlueCross program.

The Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration introduced ergonomic standards in 2000, which were assailed by businesses, claiming the standards would cost them somewhere between $20-billion and $100-billion to implement. The standard was overturned by Congress in 2001.

Carpal tunnel may have been overstated 03/24/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 25, 2008 5:20pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Associated Press.
    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Video: Rays Souza on that oh-so-bad dive, and reaction from Twins fans

    Blogs

    What was Rays RF Steven Souza Jr. thinking when he made that oh-so-bad dive for a ball in the seventh inning Friday? Well, we'll let him tell you ...

  2. What was Rays RF Steven Souza Jr. thinking on that comically bad dive?

    Blogs

    What could Rays RF Steven Souza Jr. been thinking in the seventh inning Friday when he dove for a ball and came up yards short?

    Actually, he insisted after all the laughing, teasing and standing ovation from the Twins fans was done, it was a matter of self-preservation.

  3. Judge tosses life sentences for D.C. sniper Lee Boyd Malvo

    Nation

    McLEAN, Va. — A federal judge on Friday tossed out two life sentences for one of Virginia's most notorious criminals, sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, and ordered Virginia courts to hold new sentencing hearings.

    A federal judge has tossed out two life sentences for D.C. sniper shooter Lee Boyd Malvo. [Associated Press, 2004]
  4. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser, dies

    News

    Zbigniew Brzezinski, the hawkish strategic theorist who was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter in the tumultuous years of the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s, died on Friday at a hospital in Virginia. He was 89.

    Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, participates in Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on March 5, 2009, in Washington, D.C. [Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images]
  5. USF eliminated by UCF in AAC baseball; Florida, FSU, Miami win

    Colleges

    CLEARWATER — Roughly 16 hours after a ninth-inning collapse against East Carolina in the American Athletic Conference's double-elimination baseball tournament, USF returned to Spectrum Field presumably set for a reboot.

    It simply got booted instead.

    ’NOLES win: Tyler Holton gets a hug from Drew Carlton after his strong eight innings help Florida State beat Louisville.