Keyboard Conundrums: Dealing with Pain and Injury Resulting from Long Hours at the Keyboard
Garrett Curler Feb 12, 2016
If you were asked to list types of work that take their toll on the body, you would probably be inclined to think of “physical” labor. Jobs that require significant amounts of bending, heavy lifting, and manual strength such as mechanic, construction worker, and furniture mover rightfully dominate our ideas of work that is tough on the body. However, what most massage therapists see on a daily basis stems from a less obvious source of physical stress: computer work. Working on a computer is tough on the hands as they are active for most of the day operating the keyboard and mouse while simultaneously resting on the wrists and tendons that operate most finger movements.
Consider how busy your fingers are on a daily basis if you work on a computer. Let’s say that (conservatively) you type on average of 50 words per minute. Even if you are only typing half the time that you are at work, that’s still an average of 12,000 words typed each day. At an average of 4 letters per word, your fingers are clacking away 48,000 times each day not counting computer use or texting during your off time. All of that typing adds up, leading to pain, stiffness, tingling, numbness, and sometimes actual nerve damage. This collection of symptoms in the hand is popularly referred to as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
While computer work is a major aggravating factor for Carpal Tunnel, not all pain the in the hands or wrists is true Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. The Carpal Tunnel is an anatomical structure through which blood vessels, tendons, and nerves from the forearm pass into the hand. In true Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, the blood vessels and nerves—notably the Median nerve—become compressed because the tendons swell up squeezing them inside the tunnel. As you can imagine, compressed blood vessels have a tougher time circulating blood into and out of the hand. If the Median nerve is compressed you begin to experience pain, tingling, pins and needles, and eventually numbness into the thumb, index finger and the half of the middle finger closest to the thumb.
Most of the muscles that move your fingers are actually in your forearms. Move the fingers of one hand while squeezing that forearm with your other hand and you’ll feel these muscles moving. So, when you are typing away, contracting these muscles and resting your hand on top of your wrist, you create a perfect recipe for wearing on those tendons. Your massage therapist knows how to address each of those muscles, the tendons, and the other structures that make up the carpal tunnel. Using connective tissue massage and other modalities, we stretch the muscles, free up restrictions in the tendons, and basically free up space in that carpal tunnel. Now of course, not everyone who works on a computer has Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, but we do all engage in the kind of activity that aggravates those tissues. Regularly loosening up this area is a great way to prevent achy wrists or hands from developing into full-blown Carpal Tunnel.
On the opposite side of the forearm is what I call the “mousing muscle.” Try this little experiment. Rest your dominant hand palm down with your elbow bent. With your opposite hand start your thumb on the inside of your bent elbow. Trace your thumb up so that you are resting on top of the forearm approximately 3 inches away from the elbow in the direction of your dominant hand. You should be in the middle of the width of the forearm. Press this point with your thumb while straightening the fingers on your dominant hand. The soreness you are probably feeling is a common tender point on the extensor digitorum muscle. This is the biggest muscle for lifting your fingers up off the mouse in between clicks. That may seem like a tiny, insignificant movement, but consider how sore that muscle feels.
The carpal tunnel and the extensor digitorum are just two of the hot spots that massage therapists work on every day. Massage, as you can imagine, places heavy strains on the same muscles as using a computer. So, any massage therapist that has been working for more than a few months has had to learn how to work out tight areas in the hands and forearms, just to keep themselves in working condition. If you have any questions about maintaining your hand or wrist health, please see a massage therapist who can show you just where your particular hot spots are and how to keep them from boiling over.