Many patients will ask the question: “Did I develop carpal tunnel syndrome from too much time spent using a computer or keyboard?” The answer to this question is typically: “Maybe”. For most individuals, the cause of carpal tunnel syndrome is unknown. However, there are several risk factors that have been identified, one of which is computer work.
First, it’s worth clearly defining what is carpal tunnel syndrome and what is not. Carpal tunnel syndrome is due to a pinched nerve at the wrist, called the median nerve. Symptoms include numbness, tingling, a pins-and-needles sensation, and pain throughout the thumb, index, middle, and half of the ring finger.
Symptoms typically occur when the wrist is bent, such as when sleeping, driving, or using a keyboard. This is because bending the wrist pinches the nerve even further, and increases the symptoms of compression. Individuals feel that their hand has “fallen asleep”, and with shaking, elevating the arm, or moving the hand around, that tingling sensation will disappear. Over time, more constant numbness and weakness can develop. By contrast, more general and diffuse pain throughout the hand and forearm is more consistent with other diagnoses, such as tendonitis or arthritis.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons has developed guidelines for treating carpal tunnel syndrome, and has identified several risk factors that increase an individual’s likelihood of developing carpal tunnel syndrome. These include, among other things, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, menopause, and… computer use. Regarding computer use, this conclusion was based on several studies showing a link between increased time spend using a computer, and increased risk developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
In one study published in 2015, over 2300 US workers at 54 different companies were studied, and carpal tunnel syndrome was found to be associated with repetitive activities at work and holding the wrist in extension (such as when using a keyboard or mouse).
Second, a 2012 study of 461 government employees found that those who had the highest amount of keystrokes throughout the day (>75 percentile) were 2.2 times more likely to develop carpal tunnel syndrome.
Third, a study from 2013 of over 12,000 workers from 18 countries found that computer use of over 4 hours per day was associated with developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
And finally, another study published in the year 2006, looked at 648 computer professionals from 21 companies, and found that the more hours that were spent on a computer per day, the more likely a worker was to develop carpal tunnel syndrome. Individuals with 12 hours of computer use a day were nearly 5 times as likely to develop carpal tunnel syndrome.
It is important to highlight that all of these studies show “correlations” and not “causation”. Again, for most patients, is usually impossible to determine exactly what caused their carpal tunnel syndrome, and more likely than not, many factors contribute. More information about carpal tunnel syndrome can be found here, including information about splint use and stretches that can help improve symptoms.
Regarding computer use, the best way to minimize the risk of developing or aggravating carpal tunnel syndrome, is to maintain the wrist and hand in a neutral position as shown in the images below. Sometimes a wrist splint may be helpful to maintain this optimal position and stabilize the wrist. Computer use is prevalent in all of our lives; it is worth paying attention to your hand position when using a mouse and keyboard to decrease the likelihood of developing any problems.
Dr. Schreiber is a board certified orthopedic surgeon specializing in hand, wrist, and elbow conditions. Dr. Schreiber practices at the Raleigh Orthopaedic Clinic in Raleigh, North Carolina.