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June 18, 2001
Study: Motion Injury Not Linked to Typing
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ontroversial study concludes that computer keyboards do not cause carpal tunnel syndrome.

The finding comes from researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., who published their report in the latest edition of the journal Neurology.

Carpal tunnel syndrome - characterized by pain, tingling, and numbness in the wrist and hand - became a major workplace issue at the same time personal computers arrived in offices, in the late 1980s.

The linkage between carpal tunnel and computer keyboards has "been accepted as almost fact," said study author Benn Smith, a neurologist and director of the electromyography laboratory at the Mayo Clinic. "So when this study comes out, people are going to scratch their heads and say, 'Is this right?'"

But Matthew Putnam, director of hand surgery at the University of Minnesota, said he is not surprised by the results, observing that much of the public's knowledge about carpal tunnel syndrome is based on "pseudoscience, which may not be provable or true."

"Carpal tunnel syndrome is exactly what it says it is - a syndrome," Putnam told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "Like other syndromes, the breadth of causes is very wide."

Smoking is a major risk factor because it reduces the amount of oxygen delivered to nerve cells, Putnam said. Other lifestyle risk factors include obesity, lack of exercise or too little exercise, poor diet, diabetes, and thyroid disease.

There's a significant difference between a symptom and a syndrome, Putnam explained to the Pioneer Press: "Symptoms are temporary; syndromes are permanent."

In the study, Smith and his colleagues found that only 10.5 percent of the participants - office workers at the Mayo Clinic - met the clinical criteria for carpal tunnel syndrome. That is about the same rate found in the general population.

"We were really surprised," Smith said. "We didn't expect that at all. It kind of goes against conventional wisdom."

While a certain percentage of people who type eventually develop carpal tunnel syndrome, keyboards do not cause the disorder, Smith said. Instead, some people are born with smaller-diameter carpal tunnels, which increase their chances of developing the disorder.

For unknown reasons, middle-aged women are also at higher risk. Other conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and pregnancy, can trigger the disorder, Smith said.

Typing can trigger pains in the neck and back, but they can be addressed by using ergonomically designed equipment, according to Smith.

Researchers previously linked carpal tunnel syndrome to such non-office jobs as meatpacking, jackhammer use, and working on assembly lines.

Experts placed the syndrome under the category of repetitive motion injury and then began looking at other jobs that involved repetitious motions, Smith said. Typing was an obvious selection.

"They assumed the risk [for developing carpal tunnel syndrome] was the same," Smith said. "But, really, it's never been studied scientifically."

To view the Pioneer Press story, click here.
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