Repetitive Stress Injuries On the Downswing?

By: Randy Dotinga

It wasn’t too long ago that repetitive stress injury sufferers endured the indignity of wearing strange contraptions to protect their arms and wrists. The workers must have felt like those unfortunate kids in junior high who had to wear orthodontic headgear.

But now, most of those devices are a thing of the past, some experts say. Many sufferers have turned to more effective treatments, and it appears that fewer newspaper employees are feeling pain on the job in the first place.

“As people become more aware of the condition and seek medical attention earlier, we’re seeing less complicated cases, and we can easily correct the ones we have,” said Dr. Jeffrey Moy, medical consultant for The McClatchy Co. of Sacramento, Calif.

Along with increased awareness, time has also brought more understanding of the causes of repetitive stress injury. Doctors now know why most newspaper employees don’t develop symptoms even though they share the same jobs as those who do.

“Age, gender, and genetics probably predict 65% of those who will develop musculo-skeletal pain,” said Dr. Mark Melhorn, an orthopedic surgeon and hand specialist in Wichita, Kan. Physical activities at home and on the job explain the rest.

Older people and women are especially at risk, and some will be doomed to suffer pain in even the best-designed work station. “This tells us that the job is probably not the cause but only a contributing component,” Melhorn said. “You need an individual who’s at risk, so the job becomes a trigger.”

Newspapers, of course, have no shortage of those triggers. Reporters who write a dozen 500-word stories a week — a reasonable load at a small paper — could find themselves typing 120,000 keystrokes a month. And that’s not including time spent typing notes and e-mail, moving the mouse around, and surfing the Internet.

People who work outside the newsroom can be vulnerable too, including mailroom workers and those who type classified ads or design graphics.

Employees should remember that many things in the world, from drinking cups to cars to keyboards, are designed for an average man about six feet tall and 185 pounds, Melhorn said. If you don’t fit those categories, he said, you are “ergonomically challenged.”

Experts tell employees to adjust their work stations to themselves — not the other way around — and vary their schedules so they’re not using the computer all the time. “If you’re a reporter, interview someone, read for a bit, answer the phone, check the mail, and come back to your typing,” Melhorn said. “Try to rotate the tasks you do.”

Doctors offer a variety of treatments for pain and soreness in the hand and wrist. Hot and cold packs, anti-inflammatory pain relievers, injections, and splints can help, according to Melhorn.

Devices that support the arm, wrist, and hand are much less popular than they used to be, said Moy, the McClatchy consultant, who works directly with employees of The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee. “Very few people end up working with exotic types of equipment,” he said. “When they try it, they realize it’s too awkward and limiting. We try to modify the workplace without all this additional hardware that becomes cumbersome.”

Simple treatments don’t always work, however, especially in cases of carpal tunnel syndrome, a severe form of repetitive stress injury in which the nerves of the wrist are pinched. While surgery is less common than in the past, operations are successful about 90% of the time, Melhorn said.

But surgery can be disabling, at least temporarily. Gerry Braun, writing coach at The San Diego Union-Tribune, said a prolific reporter at the newspaper is undergoing an operation for a repetitive stress injury and will be out for weeks.

Braun, who began suffering muscle inflammation in his right hand in the late 1990s, turned to another solution. He has used voice-recognition dictation software for about six years, even when he worked as a reporter and covered several high-profile stories.

Braun thinks he is an exception. “Most writers would rather work through pain than change how they go about writing,” he said. “They’re going to wait until their arm falls off before they try something else.”

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