CHICAGO -- Carpal tunnel syndrome, a wrist-and-hand disorder once associated only with factory workers, today is known as "the malady of the information age."
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that "cumulative trauma disorders," including carpal tunnel syndrome, are the fastest-growing occupational illnesses. In 1990 they made up 52 percent of work-related illnesses in private industry, up from 18 percent in 1980.
Some 200,000 Americans each year develop carpal tunnel syndrome from repetitive motion, according to Northwestern Memorial Hospital. That's why you see more and more secretaries, cashiers, data processors and other computer operators with wrist braces.
The disease is a result of inflamed tendons in the wrist. The tunnel of eight bones bound by ligaments becomes narrower, which puts pressure on the nerves and leads to pain, numbness, tingling or burning sensations in the fingers and thumbs.
The new victims, predominantly female, work with computers and scanners all day long, equipment that looks harmless enough but for some is turning out to be irrevocably dangerous.
"Eighty percent of the cases of carpal tunnel syndrome cannot be reversed," said Barbara A. Otto of 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women, an advocacy group based in Cleveland. "Few people realize that a video display terminal (VDT) can be dangerous. But 10 years from now we'll look back in shock that workers sat in front of VDTs getting systematically maimed. It will compare to a decade Preventing the painful disease, Otto says, is "so simple." Her organization, which researches computer health and safety, pinpoints the causes as improperly designed workstations and doing continuous work using the wrists and hands.
Preventive measures, Otto says, include frequent rest breaks, keyboards at elbow height, use of a contoured wrist-support device and adjustable chairs with back and arm rests.
Exercise is another key to prevention of carpal tunnel syndrome. "By the year 2000, over 50 percent of the work force will have some sort of repetitive motion injury unless something is done now," said Jeanie Pollack, partner in Wris Inc., a Chicago-based firm specializing in work-related injuries.
"It's important to get employers to help workers prevent the injury in the first place," said Pollack, a former exercise trainer with a master's in adult corporate fitness from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Pollack and her partner, Fimay Feigin, who has a master's degree in physical education and physical therapy, formed their company in 1990. They do on-site analysis of the workplace, observing people doing their jobs.
"Then we design a five-minute, job-specific exercise program to be done in the workplace during the workday that will prevent the injury from occurring," she said.
The exercises are designed to prevent fatigue, which Pollack says causes injury, and are based on an exercise program known as Active Rest. Strengthening is needed for "wrist, fingers, elbows and shoulders, using different muscles from the ones you use to do your job," Pollack said.
Among Wris' clients are food chains, newspapers and truckers. The firm has designed a program for 21 female employees of Charles Levy Circulating Co. who count returns of magazines, a repetitive motion job.
"The women do exercises every day after lunch for five minutes," said Pollack. "We also taught them exercises to do while standing and actually doing their jobs. The result is that there are no problems, no injuries, and the aches and pains have gone away."
The American Physical Therapy Association in Alexandria, Va., suggests doing these preventive exercises during the workday:
* Rest the forearm on the edge of a table. Grasp the fingers of one hand with the other hand and gently bend back the wrist, stretching the hands and wrist. Hold for five seconds.
* Gently press the hand against a firm, flat surface, stretching the fingers and the wrist. Hold for five seconds.
If you develop the disease, get medical help. "Carpal tunnel syndrome, if not treated, is a serious illness and can be debilitating," said Dr. Michael Minieka, neurologist and director of the newly opened carpal tunnel syndrome clinic at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. If you wait too long to get treatment, "nothing can be done about it, the muscle wastes away.
"You need to see a neurologist," he said. "If you indeed have a problem, the next treatment usually is a splint so you can't flex your wrist. Often, anti-inflammatory drugs are prescribed. Most people get better, but if not, the next step is a surgical procedure, usually by a hand specialist, on an outpatient basis."