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Wrist and arm pain when using a computer

Like many people who have to use a computer all day, every day, as part of their job, I find that I regularly get a painful or numb feeling in my wrists and arms.

This is my story of what I’ve done to try to make that numbness and pain go away. I’ll add a usual disclaimer, pointing out that I’m not a medical expert, this is just personal account, and that you should get advice from a professional if you have any kind of pain.

Office work is dangerous

It all started when I began my first job in an office. People may think that working in an office is safe for your health. My experience is that it is not!

Over the first weeks and months that I was there I started getting a feeling of numbness in my wrists when I was sat at my desk using the keyboard and mouse. I also started getting knee pain, which is something I have previously written about.

DSE assessment

After this had been going on a while I decided to request a DSE (display screen equipment) assessment. Fortunately this easy to do at my company. Within a week I was visited by someone from a DSE company who looked at how I was sitting, and how I was using the keyboard, mouse, and monitor.

He made adjustments to a few aspects of the way I sat at my desk, including raising the height of my monitor, and making a few adjustments to my chair.

He raised my chair to make sure that I didn’t have to tilt my arms up to use the mouse and keyboard. Because of my raised chair, I had to get a foot rest as well to keep my legs comfortable.

He also gave basic advice such as telling me to take regular breaks from the computer.

To help me remember to take regular breaks I installed the free SCIROCCO Take a Break software which I configured to pop up a reminder every half an hour.

scirocco take a break

Learning to live with the numbness

I got the numb feeling in my wrists and arms every day I worked at the office, but I learnt to live with it. The severity of the problem wasn’t improving, but it wasn’t getting any worse either.

I’d found that the problem was always much worse if I worked with bare arms. If I had the sleeves of a jumper covering my arms the pain or numbness wouldn’t be as severe or as noticeable.

uniqlo jumper

One theory I have for this is that when wearing a jumper, the extra fabric around my arms acts like a cushion, preventing me from constricting any of the nerves in my arm as severely as when they rest on my desk. This is just my personal theory, and I can’t give any scientific proof that it would work for anyone else.

You don’t always want to wear a jumper when it is hot so I discovered that I got the same improvement if I just wore fabric wristbands. You’ll find these in clothes shops that sell accessories.

fabric wristbands

Wrist braces, pill popping, and exercisers

During this time I tried a number of other things to try to reduce the pain. I gave wrist braces a go, but I found them to be very restrictive for my wrist and arm movements. I much preferred using simple fabric wristbands as I spoke about above.

wrist support for wrist pain

I tried using a number of different pills. I tried multi-vitamin tablets, cod liver oil, and glucosamine sulphate. It is possible that they helped with my general health, or even helped with my specific wrist problems, but to be honest I didn’t notice any difference when I was using them.

vitamins glucosamine sulphate cod liver oil

I also tried using wrist exercisers, but I didn’t find they improved anything. If anything I found that my wrists felt worse after using these.

wrist exerciser

Electric conduction tests

After many years of putting up with my wrist problems I decided that I really should see my doctor. When I went to see him he asked me some questions, took a look at my arm, and then said he would refer me to the hospital to have some electrical conduction tests done on my right arm (the right was worse than the left). He said that I might have a mild form of carpel tunnel syndrome.

At the hospital they attached an electrode to one finger at a time, put some salt gel on my arm, and then measured how easily electricity conducted through the nerves. They also did tests that caused my fingers and arm to twitch as a result of the electricity.

I got the results a week later which said that my nerves were fine, and if anything was wrong with them it was very mild.

Physiotherapy for my wrist pain

I had private health insurance with Cigna from my employer, so I called them up to ask if I could see a physio about my wrist and arm pain.

They agreed, and authorised six physio sessions for me.

The physiotherapist started by asking about my problem, and then doing basic manipulations on my arms to judge what the problem was. She though the problem was caused by tightness in my muscles, not just around my arm and wrist, but also in my shoulders, neck, and back.

She explained how the nerves are connected, and how problems in your back can also affect your arm and wrist.

Over the weeks she did deep tissue massage on my arm to loosen up the tissue structures. This was quite painful, and would leave me with red and purple bruises.

She also did massage on my shoulder and back areas to loosen any tissue structures that might be constricting the nerves which lead to my hands.

As well as the deep tissue massage she showed me a variety of stretches. These weren’t just hand stretches, there were stretches for my back, arm and neck as well. She was trying to work on the whole length of where the problem might be coming from.

Another DSE visit

The physio wanted to see how I used my computer equipment. As my employer wouldn’t pay for an onsite visit (it wasn’t covered by the insurance), they arranged for the DSE assessor to visit again.

He once again looked at how my desk was set up. He made an additional recommendation. He said that I should change from using a full size keyboard to a mini-keyboard. He thought that the amount of travel my right arm had to do from the mouse to the keyboard might be causing problems.

The extra travel distance is caused by the numeric keypad of a full sized keyboard. I’ve highlighted in red the amount of travel when you use a full sized and mini keyboard in the photo below.

amount of hand travel with mini keyboard

He took photos of me using my equipment which I was able to send to the physio.

Back at the physio

The physio was able to use the photos to make another suggestion. She thought that my mouse was causing me to twist my arm in an unnatural way. She recommended an ergonomic mouse.

She had a number of different ones which I was able to borrow, and after experimenting I settled on a vertical grip mouse like the one in the photo below. I bought it from Helashop (who don’t seem to exist anymore), but there are loads of other ergonomic mice available from Amazon as well. I’d advise you to try them before you buy, as they can feel quite strange at first.

ergonomic mouse

In the next photo you can see the difference one of these mice makes in the position and angle of my arm, as opposed to using a standard mouse.

wrist angle changes with ergonomic mouse

Two mice are better than one

I made a further change in my desk. I started using a second mouse. For the left hand I used a standard mouse, and I used the ergonomic mouse for my right hand. It does take a while to get used to using a mouse with your other arm, but you can do it if you practice for a few weeks.

two mice and mini keyboard

By using two mice rather than one you can spread the load more evenly over both arms, rather than having your dominant arm take most of the damage.

After 8 years, what worked, what didn’t

I’ve had knee and arm numbness for 8 years now, at varying degrees of severity. First of all these are the things that I found didn’t help me.

  • Wrist braces – I found these too tight, and constricting for my work.
  • Vitamins, Cod liver oil, Glucosamine – I didn’t notice any difference through using them.
  • Wrist exercisers – No help to me. They seemed to make things worse.

Here is what helped me.

  • DSE assessment – If you use a computer all day then make sure it is set up correctly. Any slight problems in the way you use them build up over time. Ask your employer if they can arrange for an assessment.
  • Physio – Physio was very helpful, both to help me understand the causes of the problem, and to help with the treatment. It was definitely worth treating the back and shoulders as well as the specific wrist area.
  • Stretching – I found the wrist, shoulder, neck, and back stretches reduced the severity of the problem. If you can’t motivate yourself to stretch regularly; a yoga, pilates, or dance class may help you.
  • Wearing a jumper or wrist band – This isn’t a recommendation you often hear, but I find that keeping my wrist covered by fabric helped a lot.
  • Ergonomic mouse – I did find my right arm was more comfortable when using the ergonomic mouse.
  • Using two mice, left and right – Two is better than one as the load can be spread between the two arms.
  • A mini keyboard – The reduced amount of travel of my arm between the mouse and mini keyboard help as well.
  • Computer timer – I recommend you have a timer on your computer to remind you to take regular breaks. It is very easy to lose track of time, and end up spending hours using the computer without a break.



Reader Feedback

5 Responses to “Wrist and arm pain when using a computer”

  1. Chris Newland says:

    Unfortunately the Law is so vaguely drafted as regards screen breaks, any employer can drive a coach and horse through it. Basically the employer can claim that leaving the computer for 1 or 2 minutes per hour means staff are getting screen breaks. There is no definition as to the length of a break so 1 second can be a break or blinking and eye can be a break as there is no minimum length. My employer claims going to the printer occasionally fulfils the legal obligations. The DSE staff, pressurise the staff into giving the ‘right’ answers and fill in the form for them. The employer sets an impossible availability target of 85% for the day which includes tea breaks. They comply with the bare minimum of the law, free eye tests etc but exploit the weakness of the law to the max, cutting themselves a massive amount of slack.
    Another problem is in the shape of computer desks. In order to cram as many desks in as possible and through sheer bad design, desks are frequently too narrow ie there is not enough depth in the desk, so the operator can rest their wrists on the table and sit at a comfortable distance from the screen.
    Minimum sizes of fonts need to be regulated, as I often encounter software with microscopic font sizes.
    Another problem is lack of fresh air in large open plan offices, with no access to windows. Staff are cooped up like battery hens. Lack of fresh air and exercise, hot humid environments etc lead to poor performance which managers counteract by micromanaging, high targets, pressure and constant monitoring.
    This is all in the Civil Service which should be setting an example to other employers.
    My best advice is to learn to use the mouse with both hands and switch over frequently – it only takes a few days.
    Nevertheless I still developed tendonitis in both forearms / wrists and once the tendons are sensitised, it is very hard to get rid off.

  2. Michael Carter says:

    what help me is the keyboard rest at the bottom of the keyboard and a chair with arm rests, makes all the difference.

    Michael

  3. Gemam the Mothslayer says:

    You’re very lucky to have your health insurance sort you out!

    I have also suffered since uni with back pain and a numbing arm with shooting pain. When I went to my GP she told me to stop sitting at my desk! Helpful… So I went to an osteopath privately. It was much better after seeing the osteopath a few times, and since becoming more aware of my posture and desk setup etc I have been better long term. There really needs to be more awareness about preventing these symptoms to start with! I feel now I’m just staving off later-life pain (I’m 25…). I was blissfully unaware as a student.

    I’m surprised by a small keyboard tip, purely because I feel I hunch up more when I’m typing on a small keyboard. Good tips though. I agree on the wrist brace thing, I just felt like it was making my arm more numb.

    It’s worth noting that the timer prompting a break is also useful for reducing impact on your vision!

  4. Donna Rolle says:

    the top on my left hand was swallon and hurt now my whole arm is hurting I can not raise my arm to comb my hair. I work on a computer that is sitting on a banquet table all day, do you think this have something to do with it.

  5. reviewmylife says:

    Hi Donna, if the pain gets worse when you use the computer that could be the cause. You really should see a doctor!

    A banquet table doesn’t sound very ergonomic! If it is too high for the keyboard/mouse maybe you should try to position the keyboard/mouse at a lower level. I sit my keyboard/mouse on a plank of material which I put on my lap.

    Hope it works out.

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