This article summarizes research pretty much putting the nail in the coffin of the entire idea that long-term computer use leads to Carpel Tunnel Syndrome (CTS), a variant of Repetitive Motion Syndrome in which the many-times repeated motions of working with computers lead to crippling pain in the ligament sheath of the wrist.
Why do we keep falling for these superstitions?
During the ’90s, everyone just knew with absolute certainty that Carpel Tunnel Syndrome existed and that working at the computer caused it. Circa 1997 everyone believed in CTS without a doubt. Corporations spent vast sums creating ergonomic work stations for computer uses. Manufactures spewed out a wide range of ergonomic keyboards and mice. The general public supported lawsuits against computer manufactures based on the claim that they misdesigned their input products or that they failed to warn of injury. Workers’ Comp. costs went up to pay for workers “crippled” by the supposed work-induced disorder. Now we see that the syndrome at most exist only as a side effect to other inflammation-triggering health conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or morbid obesity. We see now that the repetitive motion of computer work doesn’t cause the syndrome but rather merely aggravates an existing condition.
Carpel Tunnel looks more and more like a “Scientific Cascade” in which a media, legal and political feedback loop creates the illusion that science has conclusively proven a particular popular hypothesis. Those who question the cascade’s concept receive opprobrium and dark insinuations about their motives.
The existence of this phenomenon calls into question the accuracy of ways in which our legal and political system process information. How did we end up spending so much money and time fighting a phantom? If we settle lawsuits and levy fines based on superstitions, what does that do to our long-term economic, social and political development?
I think trial lawyers drive a lot of this. The entire CTS hysteria began with a cluster of lawsuits in the early ’90s. Once one lawyer wins a trial based on a concept, it snowballs and then business and government must respond to the concept as if it were a real phenomenon. For businesses particularly, something one can be successfully sued over becomes a real, solid issue they must address. Trial lawyers then point to the defensive actions of business as proof that the phenomenon must exist, because otherwise businesses wouldn’t spend money on it.
It’s too bad we don’t have a system in which defendants in civil trials can sue the plaintiffs somewhere down the road if the science turns in their favor.
3 thoughts on “Repetitive Lawsuit Syndrome”
Two points, first note that the article is focusing on CTS only, not repetitive motion in general, which is still a problem,
Second, as someone who has been involved in corporate safety for 20 years, it is worth noting that the correlation between CTS and other physical problems mimics a broader trend in safety generally. That is, as safety performance improves, many of the injuries that remain involve lack of fitness as a root cause. An overweight, diabetic 50 year old is much more likely to get injured than a fit 30 year old. Our ergonomics training in specific harps on physical fitness as a preventative, and we support a lot of fitness programs to try and cut down on these types of injuries.
This raises all sorts of issues. Workman’s comp and disability assumes the individual is not responsible for his injury. But what if you reach a point where most disability is in fact an outcome of lifestyle rather than the job, even when it occurs on-the-job? We don’t terminate for being in an accident, but a repeated pattern of unsafe behavior will get you fired. Does that mean you should fire out of shape 50 year olds? Age discrimination anyone? Where does ADA fit in this?
I’ve had carpal tunnel syndrome twice and each time the cause was easily identified. Right wrist – afternoon’s frantic scribbling with a a tightly gripped ballpoint pen. Left wrist – changing gear on my bike.
Sort of like a “bunsen burner of the vanities”?
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