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Computers and Carpal Tunnel Go Hand-in-Hand -- Or Do They?

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Additionally, those with carpal tunnel were not any different -- in terms of type of occupation, years on the job, number of hours on the computer per day -- from those without the syndrome, leading the researchers to conclude that using a computer "heavily" does not enhance the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome.

"It has been known that certain occupations outside of the office -- for example, using jack hammers, working in the meat packing industry, working in factories, where, thousands of times a day, a single repetitive action is done using the hand and wrist -- do increase the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, and ... people thought that perhaps computer keyboard use is a different kind of repetitive motion activity and, therefore, also increases the risk," says Stevens. "But this study would suggest that does not seem to be the case."

Richard Olney, MD, a professor of clinical neurology at the University of California, San Francisco agrees, wrote an editorial to accompany the Neurology study. He suggests that high-force repetitive activity, like working in a factory or lumber mill, is a bigger culprit in carpal tunnel syndrome than the repetitive motion of using a computer keyboard.

"I think the study highlights that we don't have as good data for less-forceful repetitive activity," Olney tells WebMD.

So why has the incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome gone up at the same time as widespread computer usage?

"Perhaps the reason ... is not because of computer keyboard use, but because people are more aware of the symptoms and medical science has advanced with new diagnostic techniques to the point where more and more people are being identified who were missed previously," says Stevens.

That is not to say that using a computer can't and doesn't lead to aches and pains. This study suggests instead that it doesn't necessarily lead to carpal tunnel syndrome.

"In our study, we found that about 60% of those people at one time or another in the previous year had had aches and pains involving the neck, shoulder, arm, wrist, or hand that they associated with their use of the keyboard," says Stevens. "It does mean that using the computer keyboard is not without some health risk, but it is not carpal tunnel syndrome ... ."

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