A Pain in the Hand
By Jean Lian
As the editor of a magazine who covers workplace accidents, I have always been grateful to the fact that my job involves so little hazards. Compared to a long-haul trucker who battles fatigue, an engineer working at a construction site or a healthcare provider who faces the risk of workplace violence, my job could not be safer. No risk of broken limbs, fall from heights or exposure to toxic gases.
Naturally, I feel invincible and safe until I started experiencing a weakness and nagging pain on my right forearm two years ago. When the pain did not go away, I sought medical attention and was diagnosed with tennis elbow. As a righthander, I attributed the cause of my condition to overexerting my right arm from doing various household chores, like wielding a broom.
But I recently started experiencing a similar weakness and pain in my left forearm as well, which made me realize that the cause is unlikely to be the occasional manoeuvering of a vacuum cleaner. It is an activity that is beguilingly light duty, something that I do not even think about when I am doing it and repeated over a very long time.
Then, a light bulb went off in my head: the culprit is typing. Like the Colorado River that carved the majestic Grand Canyon over aeons, a decade of engaging in intensive word-processing work has given me a pair of tennis elbows — and chronic to boot.
People who work on computers for prolonged periods are at risk of developing upper-limb musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) stemming from cocked wrists, frequent clicking of the mouse and overusing the forearms’ tendons and muscles. The slow onset of MSDs is what makes it so insidious. Often, we do not realize that we are engaging in bad posture or overexerting some part of our body until pain or soreness hits. By that time, we are not talking about prevention, but looking at a cure.
The observance of International Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) Awareness Day on February 28 has never held a personal ring to me until now. Working at a computer may not present a life-threatening hazard, but it can certainly bring about an RSI that can compromise a person’s physical functionality.
Instead of calling it a tennis elbow, it is high time to use an alternative term — Computer Elbow — to describe elbow pain in people who do not play tennis. This would avoid the potential misperception of tennis elbow as a sports-related condition and help people to be more mindful of their computer posture and the volume of word-processing work they do.
Pain is a necessary condition of life to trigger avoidance and ensure self preservation. For me, pain has served its purpose: I have taken corrective actions to heal the pain by doing stretching exercises for the hand, massaging the forearm and adopting a more neutral hand posture while I clack away on the keyboard.