Whatever happened to carpal tunnel syndrome?

Remember when carpal tunnel syndrome was looking to be the big bad wolf that would blow down the IT industry with a gust of wrist injuries? Well, it has not panned out.

Remember when carpal tunnel syndrome was looking to be the big bad wolf that would blow down the IT industry with a gust of wrist injuries?

While some people have certainly and unfortunately been afflicted with it, it has not become the epidemic that so many predicted.

An Associated Press article on Sunday looks into what happened with the repetitive stress injury washout:

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. Among workers in professional and business services, the number of carpal tunnel syndrome cases fell by half between 2005 and 2006...

"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. "If keyboarding were a risk, it cannot be a strong factor."

Back when RSI concern was at its peak in the mid-1990s, I was working in the industrial design group at Sun Microsystems. We looked at all kinds of ways to reduce wrist, arm, and shoulder stresses. We looked at a variety of novel keyboard configurations that small companies were putting on the market--each with its own set of pros and cons. With the litigiousness of American society, there was a major concern about putting out keyboards and mice that had been examined from an injury standpoint and validated by third parties.

But it seems that people have learned to adapt and have adjusted their behaviors to compensate for potential problems. For example, I've had occasional shoulder pangs caused by using a mouse pushed far rightward by a typically bulky modern keyboard. Switching to my laptop keyboard and allowing my hand to come back to my center fixes the problem. I only know one person who has had serious enough problems to require medical therapy and a brace, and he uses a notoriously mouse-click intensive piece of software.

What has your experience been? What about other people you know? Is this largely a solved problem or have people just shut up about it?

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About the author

    Adam Richardson is the director of product strategy at frog design, where he guides strategy engagements for frog's international roster of clients, envisioning and creating new products, consumer electronics, and digital experiences. Adam combines a background in industrial design, interaction design, and sociology, and spends most of his time on convergent designs that combine hardware, software, service, brand, and retail. He writes and speaks extensively on design, business, culture, and technology, and runs his own Richardsona blog.

     

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