Mystery of the Ergonomic Workstation: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Prevented

Over the course of a long weekend, a nimble crew of furniture assemblers transformed our old-fashioned office into modern computer workstations.

A week later my office mate started having headaches and pain in her hands and lower arms. We tried to figure out why she was having problems. We ruled out the new workstations because I wasn't having any trouble and we had the same arrangements. But what could it be?

Bingo! It finally hit us! Our workstations were the same, but we weren't the same: she was four inches shorter. Her keyboard was too high, so she had to bend her hands at the wrists, which can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. Plus, her new desk was too high for her, so she had to tilt her head back to see the monitor, tightening the muscles and tendons and giving her neck pain and headaches.

After the assemblers lowered her desk her pain disappeared.  Now her workstation was adjusted properly for her:

  • The top of her monitor was at eye level;
  • Her elbows bent at a 90 degree angle when she keyed;
  • Her hands and wrists were straight; and
  • Her shoulders, neck, and arms were relaxed.
Fortunately we solved the mystery before the strain on her body developed into carpal tunnel syndrome or another serious musculoskeletal disorder.

Six Exercises to Prevent Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

A properly adjusted ergonomic workstation is one important way to prevent injury, but it's not the only way. Exercises that stretch and strengthen your fingers, hands, forearms, shoulders, and wrists can also help keep carpal tunnel syndrome away. Here are six exercises you can try (but don't do them if they hurt).

  1. Make a tight fist with one hand. Quickly release the fist and fan out your fingers. Repeat with your other hand.

  2. Hold the second and third fingers of one hand up, closing the other fingers. Draw five wrists circles in the air with the two fingertips. Draw five more circles in the opposite direction. Repeat with your other hand.

  3. Pull your thumb back with your other hand and hold for five seconds. Repeat ten times with each thumb.

  4. To relax your neck and shoulders, shrug your shoulders up, squeeze them down, stretch them back, and then pull them forward.

  5. Join your hands and palms together in front of your chest with your fingers pointing up. Raise your elbows, stretching your forearms.  Hold ten seconds. Release and gently shake your hands until they relax.

  6. Hold one hand straight up at shoulder height with your fingers together and your palm facing away from you. With the opposite hand, bend the hand back, keeping the fingers together. Hold five seconds and repeat five times for each hand.

  7. It helps to take frequent stretch breaks. Every hour take a three-minute mini-break and move your body. Stretch, shake your arms and legs, or go for a walk. And breathe deeply. You might be surprised at how much more relaxed and energized you feel after even a short stretch break.

When to See a Doctor

Work should not hurt. If you have pain or discomfort in your arms, shoulders, hands, or fingers that does not go away or that keeps coming back or if your hands feel weak, numb, or tingling, it's time to see a doctor. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to diagnose and treat the problem.  Plus, if you keep doing the work that caused the pain, you risk injuring other parts of your body.

The right way to work safely is not a mystery. Set up your workstation so you are comfortable and keep your muscles strong and relaxed. You'll be more productive and feel better at the end of the day.