Working at a computer all day may set the conditions for a Musculoskeletal Disorder - MSD (or Repetitive Strain Injury – RSI or Cumulative Trauma Disorders - CTD). That does NOT mean that you will get carpal tunnel, DeQuervain’s or any of the other syndromes if you work at a computer all day. You may or you may not develop an RSI related condition.
In order to determine why these injuries occur, several studies have examined individual occupations, others examine particular types of exposure, and a few examine total populations and attempt to relate their daily tasks to the medical results that appear.
There are various theories about why these occur, but one of the most interesting facts is that there is no direct relationship between the amount of work you do or the type of work you do and the appearance of symptoms. Most theories assume that the injuries are biomechanical in nature. The biomechanical exposures are influenced by genetics, basic psychological set, and what is done during ‘off time’.
Some of the most complete and easily understood research was done by the National Institute of Occupational Health in 1997 Titled Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) and Workplace Factors* (see site address at end of article). It was designed as a meta-analysis, or compilation of research across the globe.
There were 77 contributing researchers in this study. NIOSH includes a chart in the Executive Summary indicating the body part and the strength of evidence that MSDs may be related to work factors – and which risk factor is the probable issue.
NIOSH Causation Table (Please scroll down if you don't see the table.)
Some of these findings are counter-intuitive. Research conducted more recently has found that Awkward Postures and Static Work Postures are more influential than this chart indicates. This study itself states “For still other body parts and risk factors, there is either an insufficient number of studies from which to draw conclusions or the overall conclusion from the studies is equivocal. The absence of existing epidemiologic evidence should not be interpreted to mean there is no association between work factors and MSDs.”
There are no easy answers to the question “why me?”. It may be what you do. It may be the method and posture you use while doing it. It may be a genetic pre-disposition, or that you like to crochet or knit in your time off...or use your hands forcefully in time off in activities such as rock climbing or blacksmithing.
The findings of the original NIOSH study are not essentially questioned, but work has not stopped in the field. More information is being published every month and evidence continues to grow. Physical identifiers are being found for more conditions that used to be considered psychosomatic.
Because of the NIOSH study’s age, some of the original links are not currently working. Instead, you can access the NIOSH page on Ergonomics (see second link below).
This page also has a searchable database. There, you can find references to your specific condition and the most recent research – some published in 2010. Many but not all of these articles are in scientific journals. If you decide you want to read one, you can ask your library if they carry it. If they don’t they may be able to get it using inter-library loan. Some are available in full text or PDF from Pub-Med (3rd link below).
These articles may be complex and couched in physiological or medical jargon, but many have good pictures and illustrations that can help. The magazine ERGONOMICS is one of the best. HUMAN FACTORS is one of the most difficult. You can generally tell how difficult the article will be from the summary that is included in the snippet available to you on the site.