Computer Pain: Wrists and Elbows

Desk work. It’s what we do as a society, more and more. Whether working in a cubicle farm, spending your days at a coffee shop typing up a rough draft, or programming websites from the insides of the internet, we’re spending a big portion of our days sitting at a computer. And let’s not forget our nights scanning through You Tube clips, catching up on Facebook or, well, finishing up that rough draft.

Now don’t get me wrong – computers are awesome. But we need to be conscious of how we interact with them. Physically speaking, of course.

Does your computer (and/or job) stress you out? As the day progresses, do you wind up hunched over your keyboard with your shoulders nearly touching your ears as your boss mentions for the umpteenth time that your teams’ production numbers are low? Do you often find yourself with your neck craned forward, squinting at the monitor, wondering why you keep getting a 401 error?

Or after a full day of typing, deleting, and typing some more, do your your wrists feel locked and achey? Maybe you even have some added elbow pain from the way your forearms rest on your desk (and the way you rest on your forearms)?

There are a number of troublesome areas of the body when it comes to constantly sitting at a desk, and I intend to discuss all of them. But let’s start with the limbs and work our way in. What’s going on there?

Mouse: Using a mouse at your desk can cause your right arm to pull forward, exerting undue pressure on your right elbow and wrist.

Trackpad: Even without a mouse, using a laptop trackpad can cause excessive pressure on your elbows and forearms.

Keyboard: The keyboard is the most obvious obstruction, hence all the talk about carpal tunnel syndrome (obstruction of one of the nerves in your arm due to swelling or damage around the bones in the wrist), and why so keyboards now come with built in wrist-rests. Beyond the troubles caused by the device itself, the location of the keyboard (on top of the desk, on a pull-out shelf, in your lap) will determine where your forearms sit and how much pressure you put on your wrists and elbows.

Even if you do have an ergonomically sound desk set-up, sitting at the same place for extended periods of time will always take its toll on your body.

Many people come to see me after having gone to their doctors about their pain. Sometimes they even come in with a diagnosis like tendonitis, which is the inflammation of a tendon (in this scenario, it’s usually one of the tendons in the elbow). Perhaps there had been talk of surgery, but the client wanted to check out some other options first.

What makes tendonitis so problematic is that tendons, unlike muscles, don’t get a lot of blood flow. (That’s why tendons are whitish, as opposed to their pink/red muscular counterparts). Without a lot of blood reaching them, the tendons don’t get much oxygen and can’t warm up all that well, which makes it much harder to reduce the inflammation (see here for an explanation). Muscle knots can be warmed up and worked out fairly quickly, or may even work themselves out. Not so with tendonitis. However, focused massage on the tendons can lead to reduced inflammation and increased relief.

Wrists can get achey too, from all the typing and mousing actions described above. Some of that can be due to local inflammation, which is partly why hand massages always feel so good. But the hands and wrists are a common area of referred pain from trigger points elsewhere in the body, especially the neck, elbows, or under the arms. If you take care of these troubled areas, the hand and wrist pain will subside on its own.

Wrists and Elbows
Shoulders and Chest
Back and Shoulders

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