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Keyboard Use and Neck and Arm Pain

Many of us use computers today for work, communicating with friends/family, viewing family photos or looking up information. Computer use has been associated with musculoskeletal problems of the upper extremities: neck, shoulders, arms, etc. Several postures and activities have been suggested as related to these disorders, including position in which the hands are held, neck and shoulder position, wrist posture and hyperextension of the fingers.

A recent study was performed to determine appropriate interventions, the postures and behaviors associated with musculoskeletal disorders. A research team from the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, including Arthritis Foundation-funded occupational therapist and researcher Nancy A. Baker, OTR/L, developed a valid and reliable observational instrument to measure keyboarding postures.

After analyzing the data from all 42 people, the angle at which one held one’s head demonstrated good ability to predict if they had neck or arm pain. Participants who had their heads pointing downward at an angle of 20 degrees or greater had a higher likelihood of having some form of neck or arm problem. In fact, all participants who identified themselves as having a neck disorder kept their heads in a downward position at 20 degrees or greater.

This study did not prove that neck flexion absolutely causes neck and arm pain; however, bending your head forward while at your computer may put you at greater risk for developing it. Computer users may want to ensure that their head is as upright as possible by making sure the monitor is high enough, using a document holder when working off paper documents, and shifting their eyes to look for keys rather bending their neck.

As with all types of pain, the sooner it is addressed, the better. First, try to correct what you feel may be bringing on your pain. If your pain continues or if you are not sure of how to perform an activity correctly, contact your Physical Therapist or physician. If you would like a handout on proper posture while at your computer, please contact me and I will be happy to provide you with one.

Baker NA, Sussman NB, Redfern MS. Discriminating between individuals with and without musculoskeletal disorders of the upper extremity by means of items related to computer keyboard use. J Occup Rehabil 2008;18:157-65.