Computers and your hands: Dispelling common myths

Have you heard that computer use causes carpal tunnel syndrome? In fact, there is a near-universal belief that technology gadgets can cause all sorts of hand problems. Both the lay public and most healthcare providers believe that entities such as “Blackberry thumb” and “repetitive strain injury” truly exist and that common hand problems such as flexor tendonitis and basal joint arthritis of the thumb are caused by repetitive typing or using a mouse . The most common myth remains that Carpal tunnel syndrome is “that computer disease” and that using your hands for what is now an everyday function for many people can cause physical harm. Nothing is further from the truth.

Not only are common conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), trigger finger, and tennis elbow not caused by so-called “overuse” or “repetitive stress,” but they are actually metabolic and hormonal-related issues that are actually quite easy to treat; given the right diagnosis is made and the sufferer is seeing the right type of specialist. Furthermore, the rarely discussed economic ramifications of this are staggering. A Swedish cohort study demonstrated that frequent keyboard use was actually less common in CTS sufferers, albeit not statistically significant.

CTS is responsible for nearly 1/3 of all money spent on workers’ compensation, rivaling low back pain. More than two billion dollars is spent a year on a condition commonly seen in the general population but particularly common in perimenopausal women, diabetics, and hypothyroid patients. It is also common in third-trimester pregnancies but usually resolves after delivery once fluid retention diminishes. Unfortunately, money in the truly broken workers’ comp system would be better spent on compensating injured workers in true work-related accidents such as falls, crush injuries, or lacerations, but instead goes to a pool of patients suffering from a very common and easily treatable nerve compression disorder.

Education regarding carpal tunnel syndrome and other such “repetitive stress injuries” is severely lacking, and the information available to the public, employers, and the insurance industry is based upon myths not supported in the scientific literature among hand specialists. The misconception may have come about due to the former association between women and keyboard use since secretarial work traditionally had certain demographic trends, and these are the same patients that tend to suffer from CTS. Any hand surgeon will tell you they never see an adolescent sufferer, yet they are typing away all day on Facebook or using a smartphone.

Dispelling the myth will not only have a great economic impact, crucial in this age of health care cost containment but also enable the sufferer to have the appropriate and speedy treatment. Employers should focus on having their employees be seen by appropriate specialists, allowing businesses to not lose crucial employees. Furthermore, this gross and pervasive misconception is likely the tip of the iceberg regarding healthcare myths since dispelling them relies on each specialty bringing forth the facts. This requires physician engagement with the public at an educational level and interest in the popular media in bringing forth the truth rather than continuing to regurgitate false claims.

The real question is whether our media sources will take the same level of interest as they do in certain other topics, such as aesthetic surgery or obesity solutions. The difference is that many clinical issues require sustained behavior change while others simply require some basic education. We will see if real interest follows or if we will continue to burn cash on false premises or faulty treatments.

Alejandro Badia is an orthopedic surgeon and author of Healthcare from the Trenches. He can be reached at Healthcare from the Trenches and on Facebook and Instagram @badiahandtoshouldercenter.

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