How to prevent carpal tunnel has become a primary concern for an increasing number of desk workers and employers in office environments.
This article is dedicated to easy, free or low cost ways to improve the way you work at your desk with focus on preventing carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive strain injury (RSI).
Please note that the following content is based solely on my personal experiences, opinions and ongoing personal attempts to avoid RSI related illnesses. If you are already experiencing pain, my advice is to seek professional help to assess your situation before turning to my collection of advice. (Medical disclaimer)
Table of Contents
What is carpal tunnel syndrome
Carpal tunnel syndrome* is a condition that involves damage or irritation to nerves and tendons in your forearm. The condition belongs to the larger family of repetitive task injury terms, often indiscriminately called Repetitive Strain Injury or RSI.
RSI is a general term that covers more commonly known health problems such as:
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
- Tennis Elbow
- Neck and shoulder pains
As society has moved into offices and assumed stationary work positions, we are now sitting too much doing micro movements with muscles that were created to be used for more dynamic movement.
This has resulted in an explosive increase in all kinds of strain injury that can hamper or even bring careers to a grinding hold if we are suddenly unable to use a mouse or a keyboard.
Office ergonomics is truly a topic worth paying attention to if you depend on a desk job.
Ergonomic gadget temptations
It is always tempting to find quick fixes to problems. While shopping for ergonomic gadgets can be interesting, you can certainly go a long way without investing in more or less expensive equipment, simply by changing your behavior when working at your desk.
Office equipment developed with an ergonomic purpose tends to be of comparatively higher quality, but usually the price follows the elevated level of quality. However, if you can remove a lot of the strain or even pain by changing your mindset, posture or use of tools slightly, money spend on gadgets might be better spend on something more fun.
In coming articles and reviews I will look at tools that can help you towards a more varied way to use your hands at the computer. Luckily the market for ergonomically correct office gear is increasing in size and many manufacturers of gadgets focused on how to prevent carpal tunnel with new equipment.
You may like my review of the Ergorest arm support: Ergorest Review – Avoid RSI In Comfort With Arm Support
How to prevent carpal tunnel
RSI related illnesses are widely accepted as being difficult to get rid of. Therefore prevention is absolute key. The pain related to RSI and carpal tunnel should not be underestimated and if your work depends on interacting with computers, these conditions can be crippling to your career.
If you are so fortunate never to have had this kind of problem it´s very easy to just plow on the way you always have. But, I have personally flirted with RSI from time to time, and the pain can be a real show stopper!
If you pay attention to ergonomics and how you sit and how you use the computer, even small changes can make a significant difference in your chance of avoiding this kind of health problems.
Use both hands
This is flat out my favorite tip of all: Learn how to use your mouse with your secondary hand to create variation.
Several years ago I was having all kinds of problems with my right arm. The nature of my work in computer animation, is an extremely intense, non-stop use of the mouse (or other pointing device). There is hardly any writing involved, except from a continuous use of hotkeys. I decided to try including my left hand in my work day.
I introduced the rule, that everything I did outside of my 3-D software had to be left hand work. It took me about 2 weeks to learn this to the point where it no longer felt awkward. Within 1-2 months, I was no longer aware of it when I was using my left hand for general computer tasks. This way I have effectively relieved my primary arm of 30-40 percent of the mouse work.
There is no doubt in my mind that this move has helped me prevent carpal tunnel and RSI issues so far. It has now been some 10 years and I have taken this to a point where it feels unnatural to use my main(right) hand for normal office or internet tasks.
In my particular line of work however, there is no way that I will ever be able to use my ”wrong” hand while doing graphics work. The combination of speed and precision required when using the pointing tool is too demanding.
I urge you to give it a shot! I would almost risk the promise that you will learn to love it.
Introduce a touch capable drawing tablet
Since I first published this article, I have written a number of drawing tablet reviews of Wacom tablets that also featured touch capability.
The initial focus of those Wacom tablet reviews were the option to replace you mouse with a pen tool which offers a more natural hand and arm posture. What happened was, that since Wacom tablets are now touch capable I introduced this fantastic new input method to my workflow by coincidence.
While I still use the pen and mouse for tasks that demand precision, there is no doubt in my mind that a touch device is the most ergonomic tool for general computer work. You can point, scroll, zoom and rotate without holding pointing device in your hand.
A touch device is no match for the pen or mouse when it comes to precision work such as work in graphical applications. But for the everyday all-round computer handling and internet work touch is simply a marvelous tool and a must have for anyone looking to improve office ergonomics.
Considering the nature of this site, you are probably someone who is working from your home office in some capacity. As a result you may have the advantage that you can plan your day more freely than people who work in corporate environments. This depends on your situation and family patterns of course, but theoretically you could have significant control over your time.
One thing to try If you have lurking RSI symptoms, which is absolute free, is to simply mix up your tasks during the day. That way you can introduce useful and healthy breaks into your work day.
With this suggestion comes an element of concentration and structure tradeoff though and this may not be for you in the end, but it might be worth trying out. It could even benefit the quality of your work to build in breaks to clear your head during the day.
My suggestion is to set up a batch processing workflow and mix up household tasks, fitness sessions or simple recreation. Take a moment in the morning and plan out your day in batches based on natural breaks in your work. A typical work day could look something like this:
- Day planning
- Workbatch – 1
- Do the laundry
- Workbatch – 2
- Have lunch (Away from your computer)
- Workbatch – 3
- Shop for groceries
- Workbatch – 4
- Go jogging or watch your favorite TV show
- Workbatch – 5
- Closing time
Surely this would be problematic if a nine to five schedule is necessary for you to make things work with your family or other obligations.
Adding new and costly tools is not the only way to improve office ergonomics. If you already have different pointing tools (mice, pen-tools, etc.) available, switch between them as often as possible. It could be as simple as to switch between two different mice or even something as simple as using different mouse types.
Try using a mouse without a wheel for a couple of days during the week. Personally, I never use a wheel mouse with my primary(right) hand, which has become rather sensible. The endless rolling quickly causes my hand to cramp up. For my left hand I use a cheap and simple two button scroll wheel mouse.
If you already have some kind of pen tool, like a Wacom tablet, you can incorporate that into your everyday workflow. It might be impracticle if you do a lot of typing during the day though.
Holding a pen tool feels much more natural than a conventional mouse and can offer some variation or even arm, neck and shoulder pain relief. However, be aware of new tension areas. My personal experience is that a pen tool can occationally lead to tension in the shoulder area.
I will get more particular about this topic in later in-depth articles. Nevertheless, I want to get you going right away.
It is easy just to focus on the mouse or the keyboard, but your general posture is also hugely important to support your RSI prevention efforts. Here are some quick pointers to a good sitting posture:
- Chair height should enable you to have your feet comfortably placed flat on the floor
- Thigh and shin should be at a slightly open angle to allow for a good cirkulation
- Upper arms in a relaxed vertical position
- Lower arms horizontal and supported
- Wrists straight without having to raise or lower your hands to reach the keyboard or mouse.
- Monitor distance at approximately arms length with fingers stretched and raised to the point that your eyes are level with the upper edge of the active screen area
Height adjustable desks are the new black on the ergonomic office scene. Personally I have had one at my disposal in only one workplace but I have recently invested in a sit and stand desk for my home office.
Benefits of a sit and stand desk are numerous, but the ability to get on your feet while still getting the job done is fantastic. Standing in periods during the day is something that I enjoy trumendously and on a typical day I use the option for approximately 1-2 hours.
Apart from the health benefits from you get from mixing standing and sitting, a height adjustable desk will also enable you to optimize your sitting position.
If you have a fixed height desk the only way to adjust your posture is to adjust the height of the chair. This is unfortunate if you are unable to adjust your chair to fit you in order to match the height of a fixed desk. If you have a height adjustable desk you can fine tune your chair settings first and the desk height second.
Height adjustable desks come at a price though and they may not be for everyone. So, before you go out and by such a desk one day, you can organize a primitive standing setup in a vacant corner of your home office until you feel like investing in a sit and stand desk. This way you can try it out and see if you like working on your feet.
I am sure that many of you are working on laptops and in that case moving between workstations is easy. If you do not own a laptop, perhaps you have an old computer wasting away in the basement that you can use for less processor demanding tasks at your temporary standing arrangement.
Yet another easy and free way to break up a locked up working posture and integrate more arm movement, is using keyboard shortcuts. All software has prebuilt shortcuts for the most common operations. Your operating system also has a significant amount of built-in hotkeys.
Quite often you can even expand the selection with your own shortcut creations to go even further. Over time you can save miles and miles of mouse moves and clicks which will not only save your body from strain, it will also speed up your workflow once you have learned the shortcuts by heart.
You can find a multitude of sources for this with a google search, but below you will find a link to a site that conveniently offers shortcuts for Windows, OS, Linux and all sorts of programs.
Return to the Office Orbiter blog for more on office ergonomics
Home office ergonomics and how to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome and RSI is and will remain one of the main topics on this home office blog.
* You can read more on carpal tunnel syndrome on WebMD