Arm Support Protects Workers from Increasingly Common Injury

Healthnotes Newswire (December 14, 2006)—People who answer phones while working on a computer might be able to prevent or reduce upper-body pain by using a wide forearm support board, a new study has found.

Call center work, or computer-based customer service, is one of the fastest growing occupations in the world. The work involves using a telephone and computer simultaneously to provide services such as banking, healthcare, making sales, dealing with bills, and scheduling appointments and reservations.

Pain in the hands, arms, shoulders, and neck is the most common health problem associated with this type of work and the main cause of work-related lost time among call center workers. Upper-body pain is often caused by long hours spent working at the computer in awkward positions, such as the forearms resting lower than the computer keyboard.

“The management of upper-body pain and disorders experienced by computer users should consider a number of factors, including the severity of the disorder, tasks at home and work that aggravate the disorder, the hours of computer work per week and work/break pattern, the work station setup, and [other health conditions],” the authors of the latest study noted.

Their study, published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, included 125 workers in the customer service center of a large healthcare organization. They all received training in posture and workstation adjustments, known as ergonomics training. They were then divided into four groups: the first group (the control group) received no other treatment; the second group used a trackball instead of a mouse; the third group used a wide, padded forearm support board placed in front of the computer keyboard, allowing the forearms to rest close to keyboard level; and the last group used both the trackball and forearm support board.

From the beginning to the end of the yearlong study, pain levels decreased in the groups that used the forearm support board, but not in the control group. They were also 51% less likely to have neck and upper-back pain and 71% less likely to have left arm and hand pain during the study than those who didn’t use the arm board. Although some people benefited from the trackball, it was not as effective as the forearm support board.

The researchers point out that, in addition to protecting people’s physical health, employers could reap economic benefits by offering forearm support boards to call center workers. They based this claim on a “return on investment” calculation, which took into account the cost of the arm board and its installation and the savings associated with preventing neck, upper-back, arm, and hand disorders. Both the health benefits and the economic benefits, however, could take time to become evident.

(Occup Environ Med 2006;63:300–6)

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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