Keyboard jockeys try wrist-saving software
November 22, 1999
Web posted at: 12:50 PM EST (1750 GMT)
CNN's Rhonda Rowland reports on carpal tunnel syndrome and some of its causes.
By Kim Wallace
Wrist pain could ruin Ann Chen's career. Sitting at her desk in San Francisco all day, the 30-year-old investment analyst trolls the Web, types e-mail and mouses her way around spreadsheets. All that would be impossible if she were to develop carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), a form of nerve damage caused in part by repetitively typing and clicking.
So when Chen felt a tingle in her wrists, she took action immediately. First, she got physical therapy. Next, she chose to use Stretch Break -- software intended to make the very machine that had caused the problem help prevent it from coming back.
Such software, aimed at encouraging resting periods and stretches to ease the wear and tear on nerves and tendons, is becoming popular in companies with lots of keyboard users. But experts question whether the programs can truly make a difference.
Carpal tunnel syndrome
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that nearly 650,000 Americans suffer serious workplace injuries caused by repetitive motion and overexertion. These injuries account for 30 percent of missed work days and cost U.S. businesses from $15 billion to $20 billion each year in workers' compensation costs, OSHA reports. Add lost work time and reduced productivity to the equation, and the corporate financial loss rises to $60 billion annually.
CTS is the most common form of repetitive motion injury in the United States, according to the agency, and 10 percent of those diagnosed with even mild CTS never fully recover.
Computers to the rescue?
So it's easy to see why Chevron, Boeing, 3M, Hewlett-Packard and America Online have bought CTS prevention software.
Chen's coworker suggested she try Paratech's Stretch Break, the program offered at her office. Stretch Break periodically reminded her to pause and stretch along with animated examples on the screen. She could control how often the reminder interrupted her work and the number of stretches offered per session. "We're looking at extending the whole concept of computer wellness," says Arthur Salzman, president of Paratech, which developed the Stretch Break program in 1995.
Paratech's competitors in the stretch-inducing software market include Jazzercise, which released a stretch-friendly screen saver, Cyberstretch, in 1998, and Bolinas, California-based Shelter Publications, which has adapted one of its best-selling books into a software program called StretchWare.
"It seemed like a good idea to have the same machine that caused the problem contain the solution," says StretchWare editor and producer Leo Kahn.
Solution or annoyance?
Certified hand therapist Karen Nugent, president of the Hand Therapy Center of Marin in Larkspur, California, isn't so sure software is the answer.
"Patients I've worked with either completely turn off [the programs] or erase them from their computers -- or they just find them an annoyance," Nugent says. "I think they get so frustrated that the frustration counteracts the idea of relaxing."
Salzman responds that the programs still help in the long term. "We've found that people initially will use [the program] a lot, then they'll do it a little bit less, but then they come back," he says.
Another problem with the programs, Nugent says, is that stretching isn't going to prevent workers from suffering repetitive motion injuries if their environment is working against them. If workstations aren't properly adjusted, on-screen stretching programs, while well-intended, are rendered ineffective.
"To fix the workstation requires training and time, and that's the hardest thing to sell," Nugent says.
Motivation is the key
While no software program can automatically adjust workstations to proper ergonomic standards, the designers of Stretch Break, Cyberstretch and StretchWare all had workstation adjustment and comfort in mind. Each program provides an on-screen ergonomics tutorial, and user feedback regarding this feature has been particularly positive.
"Users report that not only are they more aware of the need to stretch, but they also are motivated to maintain proper workstation setup," Salzman explains.
Karen Jacobs, president of the American Occupational Therapy Association, counters that motivation is what drives people to use stretch-inducing software in the first place. "If a person is motivated to prevent work-related musculoskeletal disorders, these types of computer programs are just cues."
As for Chen, she's back at work and pain-free for the moment. Stretch Break helped, she says. "Initially it reminded me to take breaks every 15 minutes. It was novel at first, and I would get out of my chair and stretch.
But after a few weeks, Chen began to ignore the on-screen reminder. Now she prefers to exercise sore muscles on a yoga mat or as directed by her company's on-site physical therapist. All of which underscores Jacobs' point -- software may help, but it won't solve the problem on its own.
Copyright 1999 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.
RELATEDS AT :
What is carpal tunnel syndrome?
Carpal tunnel syndrome
Cornell University research on CTS
Occupational Health and Safety Administration Ergonomics Program
Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.
LATEST HEALTH STORIES:
China SARS numbers pass 5,000
Report: Form of HIV in humans by 1940
Fewer infections for back-sleeping babies
Pneumonia vaccine may help heart, too