Some prone to carpal tunnel

Dave Yochum

Students who spend long hours in front of computers may develop painful condition

Chris Cahoon first noticed the pain last February. He had just begun doing Web development for Sherwin-Williams, hoping to build his resume and his future with each click of the mouse.

Now, just nine months later, Cahoon is still clicking away – except the pain that started last winter is so excruciating he can’t click a mouse with his right hand anymore.

“It feels as though my wrist and fingers are burning,” explained the senior computer information systems major. “It’s a very sharp, constant pain – almost intolerable.”

For Cahoon, the feeling of carpal tunnel is there all the time. He’s been told the pain he endures is somewhat like arthritis, but not many people Cahoon’s age can relate to arthritis. Perhaps a better comparison could be made to Wolverine from the X-Men movies.

Remember the adamantium claws that poke through Wolverine’s hands when he fights? That’s the feeling of carpal tunnel.

As students like Cahoon continue to spend longer hours in front of computers, doctors are seeing more cases of carpal tunnel than ever before. Carpal tunnel syndrome affects anyone from writers and assembly line workers to physical therapists and downhill skiers. As the first generation brought up with computers, today’s college students are considered prime candidates when it comes to developing future carpal tunnel – a pain felt not only when working but even when relaxing.

“When I’m not on a computer, the joints in my fingers feel very tight,” Cahoon said. “I find myself cracking my fingers/knuckles every 10 minutes.”

The pain of carpal tunnel that Cahoon and others describe is caused by pressure on nerves within the wrists, causing tingling and numbness throughout the hand, according to the National Institute for Neurological Disorders. As the nerves and tendons in a human arm run toward the fingers, they pass through a “tunnel” that protects them from damage. Carpal tunnel occurs when the nerve is pinched or compressed within that tunnel – in turn causing swelling and aggravation.

The problem commonly stems from poor computer ergonomics, such as improper chair height, keyboarding techniques and mouse placement. Though correcting poor ergonomics can help ease the pain associated with carpal tunnel in some cases, Todd Francis of DeWeese Health Center said different techniques may be needed to treat more advanced symptoms.

“Inflammation caused by carpal tunnel can be decreased through ultrasound, which increases blood circulation in the wrist,” said Francis, a physical therapist. “Anti-inflammatory medication can also be prescribed to help with the pain.”

In addition, hand exercises and hand braces can be used to treat carpal tunnel and help relieve pain. If those treatments don’t work, however, surgery could be the only way for carpal tunnel sufferers to get any relief.

Dr. Bhavank Doshi, a physician at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, agrees surgery can be helpful but thinks college students are too young to undergo such procedures.

“By modifying your habits on the computer, carpal tunnel pain can be eased with time,” said Doshi. “The primary thing that helps is staying in natural positions when using the computer, not putting any strain on the wrists or arms.”

Doshi recommends hand braces for his carpal tunnel patients, which are available at any pharmacy or medical supply store. He believes the braces are the best way to treat carpal tunnel, explaining how some even have pieces of metal in them that assist with ergonomics.

“When you wear them, the metal actually forces a person’s hands into the correct ergonomic positions,” said Doshi.

For people who think they have carpal tunnel or who begin to have problems with their hands and wrists, seeing a doctor sooner rather than later can help prevent painful damage that only surgery can repair.

Even though he had read and heard all about the symptoms of carpal tunnel, Cahoon recently decided to see a doctor to get a definite diagnosis for his wrists and also find out about any r emedies for his pain.

When asked if he could have done anything different to prevent carpal tunnel, Cahoon admits he could have used a track ball mouse instead of an optical mouse, but he’s not a big fan of making the switch.

“No matter how much I dislike them, it’s an option I might have to consider in the future,” he said.

For more information regarding the exact causes of carpal tunnel and the treatments available, visit the National Institute for Neurological Disorder’s Web site at

Contact features correspondent Dave Yochum at [email protected].