A call to arms

By Michael Day MOST people who use computer keyboards regularly will develop nerve damage in their arms, a new study suggests. “This is a startling finding,” says Bruce Lynn, the neurophysiologist at University College London who led the research. “We may be seriously underestimating the number of people who are at risk from upper limb disorders.” He says the study provides the best evidence yet that repetitive strain injury (RSI) is a real physical illness. To investigate RSI, Lynn and his colleague Jane Greening studied three groups of people: patients being treated for the condition; a group of office workers who regularly used keyboards; and a control group who did not. With each group, they applied vibrations to different parts of the hands to test the sensitivity of the three main nerves running up the arm: the radial, the ulnar and the median. This technique has been important in studying more established forms of nerve damage. The 17 people being treated for RSI were less sensitive to low-amplitude vibration than the 27 in the control group. This reduction in sensitivity was most marked in the median nerve. The RSI group also felt pain when their arms were subjected to high-amplitude vibration. Only three of the 29 keyboard-using office workers were complaining of RSI symptoms at the time of the test. Yet 60 per cent showed a similarly large reduction in their median nerves’ sensitivity to vibration. “This may indicate the first signs of RSI,” says Lynn. He argues that the discovery could lead to tests that would give an early warning to people at risk of developing upper-limb disorders. Lynn says his results, which appear this week in the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health (vol 71, p 29), fit the theory that RSI relates to damage of the median nerve. “You would assume from this that nerve fibres have been damaged or have died,” he says. The study should strengthen the case of RSI sufferers struggling to convince employers and the courts that their condition is work-related. “This proves what we’ve been saying,” says Tim Gopsill, health and safety spokesman for Britain’s National Union of Journalists. “RSI is a real condition that causes serious pain.” However, a spokeswoman for Britain’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) argues that a precise definition for RSI remains elusive: “RSI is not a formal medical condition, but we accept that working on a keyboard can affect people’s health.” The HSE has launched two studies in the hope of gauging the number of people who suffer work-related pains in their arms. “It’s not just keyboard workers,
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