Unnoticed and unsung, healthy hands perform countless small tasks, from pouring your morning coffee to brushing your teeth at night. But aching hands transform even a simple task into a painful ordeal. Beneath the skin, your hands are an intricate architecture of tendons, joints, ligaments, nerves, and bones. Each of these structures is vulnerable to damage from illness or injury.
Your hands may hurt for a variety of reasons, from the mechanical to the neurological. Arthritis — which affects one in five American adults — and other persistent joint problems are by far the most common cause of hand pain and disability. Another common cause of hand pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, affects an estimated 2% to 3% of Americans. Contrary to conventional wisdom, this nerve disorder rarely results from repetitive work-related tasks, as a growing body of research reveals. True work-related musculoskeletal disorders are known as repetitive stress injuries and can be quite debilitating. But there are steps you can take to prevent them.
Help for office workers' hands
If you work in an office, it's a good idea to have an ergonomic evaluation of your workspace to avoid habits that may put you at risk for repetitive strain injuries. If that's not possible, the following tips may help:
- Keep your wrists in a neutral position, not flexed downward or extended upward, when using your computer. To check, place your wrist, palm facing down, on a flat, hard surface. Put a Band-Aid lengthwise over the top of your wrist, and then move to your keyboard and type. If the Band-Aid stretches or goes slack, your wrists aren't in a neutral position.
- Get up from your desk and stretch at least once every hour. In between, take shorter breaks to rest your hands, palms up, on your lap or on a wrist rest. You can install software on your computer that reminds you to take micro-pauses or rest breaks and restricts your daily time on the computer.
- Be skeptical about new keyboard configurations (such as split keyboards) or mouse designs claiming to be ergonomic. It will take many years of study to learn whether such changes translate into fewer work-related upper-extremity musculoskeletal disorders.
Customizing your workstation
Ergonomics specialists who design strategies to improve the fit between workers and their jobs suggest the following arrangement for computer workstations:
- Keep documents, telephone, keyboard, mouse, and supplies within easy horizontal reach — not more than 16 to 18 inches away.
- Place the computer monitor directly in front of you, at arm's length, with the top line of the screen at or slightly below eye level (possibly lower for someone with bifocals or trifocals).
- Set your keyboard on an adjustable tray so that your forearms are parallel to the floor, wrists are straight and in line with your forearms, and elbows are relaxed and bent at a 90-degree angle at your waist.
- Keep your mouse close to the keyboard and at the same height, possibly with a padded wrist rest.
- Use an adjustable chair, with a rounded front edge and good lower- and upper-back support, positioned so that the knees are slightly lower than the hips and the feet rest firmly on the floor (or on a footrest).
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