We often think of eyestrain and headaches with prolonged computer use but it can also affect other parts of the body particularly the neck, upper back and upper limb. In a modern world where prolonged computer use is part of daily life, both at work and at home, arm problems related to computer use has become common. Most of us know of carpal tunnel syndrome where the problem arises at the wrist but prolonged computer use can also affect the elbow and even the neck and upper back where nerves emerge to run down the arm.
Computer-Related Arm Strain
Most people only realize the extent of the arm injuries related to prolonged computer use once pain arises. However, the problem may have start days, weeks or even months prior. The extent of the problem depends on several factors. Pain alone is not a reliable indicator of the extent of the injury. These types of injuries are usually repetitive stress injuries. This simply means that the injury has arisen from repeated stress and strain as opposed to acute injuries where a sudden severe blow or strain is responsible.
Even though it is the hands and fingers that does most of the work when using a computer, the other parts of the upper limb are also active. For example, the hand is held in a certain position at the wrist which requires the use of muscles in the forearm. Similarly the forearm is held in a position by the upper arm by bending it at the elbow. Since most of us do not keep our arms suspended in the air while using a computer keyboard or mouse, the forearm and part of the hand may rest on a desk or some other hard surface which can also cause injury.
The constant strain extends to the shoulder joint, neck and upper back. Poor posture while using a computer in particular strains the neck and upper back. Although this causes problems at these sites, the symptoms may extend to the arms since the nerves that supply the arm arise from the neck and upper back.
Cause of Computer Arm Problems
It is important to look at the causes in terms of the types of different arm problems that computer users may experience. Many of the symptoms are similar and while pain is common in most of these conditions, it may not always be present or prominent. Similar conditions that arise from the neck or upper back are further discussed under cervical radiculopathy.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is one of the most common hand-related problems associated with computer use. It arises when the median nerve, which supplies the hand, becomes compressed as it passes through a bony tunnel in the wrist. While carpal tunnels syndrome is often seen with prolonged computer use, there is no conclusive evidence that there is a link. It is thought that different causes of hand pain associated with long periods of computer use may often be mistaken for carpal tunnel syndrome.
Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include:
- Tingling and numbness of the fingers, except the little finger
- Hand and finger muscle weakness
- Pain from the wrist down
Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
Cubital tunnel syndrome is a lesser known arm problem which arises when the ulnar nerve is pinched at the level of the elbow. The exact link between cubital tunnel syndrome and prolonged computer use is not always known. It may be associated with long hours of bending the elbow to position the hand over the keyboard, or with resting the elbow at an awkward spot that compresses the ulnar nerve. The nerve can also “slip” from its normal position with repeated bending and straightening of the arm at the elbow joint.
Symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome include:
- Numbness and tingling of ring finger and the little finger
- Weak grip
- Pain from the elbow down
Writer’s cramp known by the medical term mogigraphia is a condition that does not receive as much attention. It is mainly associated with writing for long periods of time but typing can also cause it. Writer’s cramp is mainly a problem where the muscles of the forearm go into involuntary spasm and the coordinated relaxation and contraction of muscles is impaired. It is a task-specific focal dystonia. Apart from writing and typing, any repetitive hand movement can lead to writer’s cramp.
Symptoms of writer’s cramp include:
- Difficulty performing precision tasks with hands and fingers
- Deformity of the hand when resting
- Pain in the hand that worsens with activity
Ways to Prevent Arm Problems with Computer Use
While there are a number of treatment options for each of the conditions mentioned above, these conditions should ideally be avoided as far as possible. It is important to note that serious complications can arise over time if the condition is left untreated and eventually surgery may be required. Prevention should be the focus for every person who uses a computer for prolonged periods of time on a daily basis especially when it is an occupational requirement and can therefore not be avoided altogether.
- Reduce the amount of time spent using a computer. While this is not always possible in work situations, personal computer use requiring the use of the hands should be limited.
- Use ergonomically designed equipment, including keyboards and chairs, especially in situations where computer use will be over a prolonged period of time.
- Hand, wrist and arm braces can help to limit movement and support the joints. It should only be used if deemed appropriate by a medical professional and not worn too tight.
- Rest the arm frequently throughout the period of computer use. Even a minute of resting the arm every 10 to 15 minutes will help reduce the impact on the different arm structures.
- Speak to a physical therapist about simple hand and arm exercises that can be done to ease muscle and joint strain, and increase muscle strength if necessary.
- Use hot and cold therapy to limit the inflammation and spasm. Cold therapy should be used for 24 to 48 hours after an injury while heat therapy should be continued for days thereafter.