Mouse Menace: What you don’t know about point and click can hurt you

If you think that the pain in your shoulder or arm is from using your keyboard or sitting in a poorly designed chair, you may be overlooking the real culprit: your computer mouse. It may look innocuous enough, but this staple of the modern office may be anything but.

Occupational therapists, physicians, and ergonomic consultants working directly with injured patients see first-hand the damage that too much mousing can do.

Deborah Quilter, a consultant and author of The Repetitive Strain Injury Recovery Book says, “The mouse is extremely dangerous. Any of the other pointing devices are also flawed. If people understood just how dangerous they were, they would not use them,” she says.

Funny Little Movements

There are several factors contributing to the problem. First, there’s overuse. Quilter says that because you are using your dominate hand – the same hand you brush your teeth with, comb your hair with, shake hands with, etc. – to use a mouse, your hand gets a real workout. Plus, repetition (clicking all day with the same hand and same fingers), and improper use, such as gripping the mouse too hard or overextending your forearm to move it.

“People do idiosyncratic things with their hands, they contort them,” explains Quilter. “They don’t realize that making these funny little movements that look like nothing to the untrained eye can give you neck pain, shoulder injuries, etc.” Symptoms of RSI may include numbness, tingling, lack of endurance, tremor, clumsiness, lack of sensation, a feeling of heaviness, and pain, says Quilter.

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Mouse-related injuries are nothing to scoff at. “I know people who cannot feed themselves, can’t write a check, can’t shake hands,” warns Quilter. “And once you have an injury, you are in trouble. How are you going to heal if you are continuing the exacerbating activity?” she adds.

Sound alarming? OSHA reports that one-third of all occupational injuries and illnesses stem from overexertion or repetitive motion. And clicking on a mouse all day is exactly the type of repetitive motion that leads to problems. However, few studies have separated mouse use from other computer-related injuries, making it difficult to establish conclusive data on mouse-related injuries. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist

Dr. Anthony Andre, of Interface Analysis Associates, an ergonomics
consulting firm in San Jose, Calif., points out that “most ergonomists, ergonomic researchers, and physicians have publicly identified mousing as a significant risk factor and several studies have documented specific relationships between mouse use and RSI propensity.”

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Mouser’s Elbow

Debra Lieberman, an occupational therapist with the National Rehabilitation Hospital’s outpatient network, says the problem is so common, there’s now a name for tendonitis caused by using a mouse: “mouser’s elbow.” There are two reasons for it, says Lieberman. “If you’re using a standard mouse, not only are you clutching it and gripping pretty hard, but you’re also repeatedly clicking with the index finger.” Plus, most people use a keyboard tray that doesn’t have room on it for a mouse, so you’re pulling back from your desk and reaching to use the mouse.

Being on the Internet all day, even if you’re not typing can easily lead to an overuse injury. So how can you tell if your mouse is to blame for soreness, lack of sensation, pain, or other symptoms? According to a paper by Dr. David Rempel, director of the UC-San Francisco/UC-Berkeley Ergonomics Program, one way to tell that an injury may be related to using a mouse is if only one hand or arm is affected. For example, you might experience pain, discomfort, or soreness in the hand that you use to click a mouse. If you have pain in just one hand, look at what that the injured hand is doing that the non-injured hand is not. This could include using the numeric keypad, the cursor arrow keys, the pointing device, the function keys, or editing keys.

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What can you do to reduce mouse-related problems?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Place the mouse near your keyboard to avoid over extension.
  • Use a wrist rest.
  • Take frequent breaks. Quilter suggests a 5-10 minute break at least every 20 minutes.
  • Hold the mouse lightly, don’t grip it.
  • Lieberman says that when using a mouse, instead of twisting your wrist back and forth, move the mouse with your biceps and triceps with your elbows close to your side.
  • Consider trying different types of pointing devices such as a trackball or touch pad. If you use a touch pad, alternate different fingers to avoid overuse.
  • Stretch frequently.

There may not be a perfect solution right now, but by paying attention to your body and consulting a doctor at the first sign of trouble, you may be able to lessen the severity of a mouse-related injury. But if you want to avoid mouse troubles altogether, you probably shouldn’t use one at all.

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