The human wrist is remarkable. It doesn’t look like much on the outside, but underneath the skin, muscle and tissue, there are eight small bones that work in tandem to create one of the most dynamic joints in the human body. No other creature on Earth has a wrist like it. Even when compared to other primates, the human wrist is more flexible and more mobile. Versatile wrists combined with sensitive hands have helped humans craft everything from useful tools to extravagant art.
However, the mobility in those eight wrist bones comes at a cost. The human wrist is a delicate structure that can be damaged in many ways. In fact, up to 6% of the population experiences some wrist or upper arm pain during their lives and the prevalence is higher among those who regularly do manual labor or factory work. With the advent of modern keyboards, students spend more time clicking computer mouses, typing and tapping touch screens than previous generations. When done for prolonged periods of time, these and other activities can cause pain to the wrist and the upper arm.
What Causes Wrist Damage
The number one culprit of wrist pain is repetitive movement. Even though one click with a mouse or typing for an hour on a keyboard probably won’t result in wrist pain, several hours of extended clicking or typing often results in a painful ache around the wrists. This is because the tendons, the long fibrous cords that attach joints to the skeletal structure, become inflamed when they are overused, resulting in a condition called tendonitis. Tendonitis can occur around any joint, such as the elbow or knee, but it’s very prevalent around the wrist as well. Sometimes touch screens get forgotten in the world of health and technology, but repeatedly tapping on a phone or tablet, especially with the index finger, can cause the same kind of gradual strain on the tendons.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is often confused with tendonitis, but it is not the same thing. While tendonitis is characterized by pain around inflamed tendons, carpal tunnel syndrome is characterized by a sensation of numbness, tingling or weakness in the arm because of a pinched nerve. Like tendonitis, repetitive movement may exacerbate these symptoms but it is likely caused by the physical structure of the arm.
And of course, there are sports, which have been popular among students for generations. Every sport comes with the risk of physical injury. For the most part, the challenge of playing a sport is worth the risk, but accidents happen. Most sporting injuries happen in the extremities, such as the legs and arms — and by extension, the hands and wrists. Sometimes the damage is obvious, such as a jammed finger or sprained wrist, but repetitively catching a ball or throwing it incorrectly can strain the wrist and tendons even more harshly than repetitive computer use.
How To Help Ease and Prevent Wrist Pain
Pain is often the body’s signal to stop and find a new way to perform a task. Sometimes finding a way to mitigate wrist pain is as simple as finding a new position to sit in. Since a lot of wrist pain comes from inflamed tendons, it’s a good practice to keep the wrist as straight as possible. Typing on a keyboard that’s too high or too low can cause the wrist to bend and put pressure on the tendons. This might mean putting a laptop on your lap or finding a new table to work at, but compared to an aching wrist, it’s worth it.
The same principle applies to tablets with touch screens. Repetitive tapping on a screen starts to hurt after a long time and keeping the hands and wrists straight can help. Tapping with the thumb instead of the index finger can also keep pressure off the tendons. Using a touch screen this way can feel unnatural at first, but it’s a lot more pleasant than wrist pain.
If wrist pain has already set in, doing some doctor-approved hand and arm stretches can help. Just like how athletes stretch their muscles before performing, stretching the hand and arm before sitting down for a long computer session can help prevent pain and injury.
Ice is another useful tool. Keeping an ice pack on a sore wrist can reduce inflammation and pain. However, it’s important not to ice anything for longer than 20 minutes, as that is counterproductive. A heat pack may also help relax the muscles.
If possible, it’s important to take breaks from repetitive movements that cause pain. For example, after typing for several hours, it might be best to work on a reading assignment for a while to give the wrists a well-deserved break.
While most wrist pain can be prevented or mitigated by stretching or altering one’s posture, there may be times when the wrist or arm is truly damaged. Whenever wrist or arm pain persists for a long period of time or impairs normal functioning, a person should seek professional medical advice.
The human wrist is a miraculous structure in the human body. It allows humans to perform more fine motor skills than any other creature on the planet. But just like anything else in the body, there are things that can go wrong and cause pain. Hands and wrists can be damaged from playing sports or performing physical labor, but the wrist can also be damaged through small, repetitive movements, like typing on a keyboard with bent wrists. Most of the time, computer users don’t realize what’s going wrong until the task is finished and a dull ache in the wrist sets in. Thankfully, there are ways to mitigate the pain, such as stretches, changing posture and taking periodic breaks to give those hard-working wrists a break.