Health hazards for office workers

Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI)

The umbrella heading "Repetitive Strain Injuries" includes a number of disorders that derive from repeatedly carrying out the same movement. Over a period of time, a nerve or tendon becomes inflamed, forcing the patient to abandon his or her habitual activity until full recovery. Symptoms experienced by sufferers range from a dull ache to throbbing and acute pain, often accompanied by numbness or a tingling sensation and loss of strength in hands and arms.

Repetitive Strain Injuries have been identified as occupational hazards: office workers and musicians (instrumentalists) are among the categories most likely to be affected.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, in 2001 there were over 65,000 cases of absence from work in private industry due to disorders caused by repetitive motion (Number of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses involving days away from work by selected injury or illness characteristics and industry division, 2001). Of these, 26,800 were due to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and 14,100 to tendonitis.

The most common forms of RSI affecting office workers are the following:

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
This is a painful progressive condition resulting from pressure on the median nerve which runs through the carpal tunnel in the wrist. Numbness and tingling are frequently experienced at night, when the sufferer is trying to get to sleep, rather than during daily activity. Early treatment is essential to avoid permanent damage.

In US private industry in 2001, among major disabling injuries and illnesses, median days away from work were highest for carpal tunnel syndrome (25 days). (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor.)

Wrist Tendonitis or Tenosynovitis
Inflammation of a tendon or tendon sheath in the wrist, most frequently at the base of the thumb (DeQuervain's tenosynovitis), on the back of the wrist, or on the palm side of the wrist. Can be caused by repeated clicking on a mouse.

In this condition, commonly known as "tennis elbow", the tendons attached to the bones at the elbow become inflamed. Forceful gripping is extremely painful and there may also be swelling.

Ulnar Neuropathy
Also known as Cubital Tunnel Syndrome. Compression of the ulnar nerve in the elbow produces numbness and pain in the little finger, extending up the forearm towards the elbow. Can be caused by using a telephone handset for long periods with the elbow bent.

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome
When an operator is obliged to crane his or her neck to look at the monitor, the nerves and blood vessels running from thorax to head can become compressed.

More information about RSI

Back pain

Cervical myalgia
Recurrent pain in the trapezius muscle, located between the shoulder and neck. This is the most common form of back pain among office workers and is frequently caused by an incorrectly positioned keyboard or monitor, which induces the operator to hunch the shoulders or hold the head at an unnatural angle while working at the computer. Also known as trapezius myalgia, neck tension syndrome, cervical strain.

Low back pain
Pain in the lumbar region of the back may be due to spondylolisthesis (horizontal shift of one vertebrae relative to the next), which can result from bad posture or the use of an unsuitable chair.

Computer Vision Syndrome

This condition has been defined as the "complex of eye and vision problems related to near work, which are experienced during or related to computer use" (American Optometric Association). Symptoms may take the form of headaches, blurred vision, dry and irritated eyes, slow refocusing, neck and/or backache, sensitivity to light, double vision and color distortion. Risk factors include bad lighting, incorrectly positioned equipment, poor work habits and undetected visual defects.