Computers are increasingly used in daily life: 56 percent of workers use one on the job and 62 percent of households own one. Arthritis is a leading cause of work disability, and those with the disesase may have difficulty performing physically demanding jobs, and may select jobs that appear less strenuous but require intensive computer use. Computer use is a risk factor for pain and musculoskeletal disorders in the general population; arthritis patients are more at risk because of difficulties performing tasks due to pain, restricted movement, muscle weakness, or fatigue. Little is known about the magnitude of problems experienced by those with arthritis during computer use, but a new study explored this question among people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), osteoarthritis (OA) and fibromyalgia (FM). The study was published in the May issue of Arthritis Care & Research (http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/77005015/home).
Led by Nancy A. Baker of the University of Pittsburgh and funded by the Western Pennsylvania Chapter of the Arthritis Foundation, the study involved 315 arthritis patients who completed a specially-designed survey that contained questions on computer use, discomfort experienced while using a chair, desk, keyboard, mouse and monitor, and problems associated with each piece of equipment. The results showed that many people with arthritis experience both discomfort and problems that could lead to work limitations: 84 percent of respondents reported a problem with computer use attributed to their underlying disorder and 77 percent reported some discomfort related to computer use. Of the three categories of disease, significantly more respondents with FM reported severe discomfort, more problems and greater limitations related to computer use than those with RA or OA. "Because those with arthritis may experience pain and discomfort even under ideal circumstances, it is not surprising that the prevalence of respondents reporting discomfort with computer use is considerably higher than the general population of computer users," the authors note.
Respondents reported problems with finding a comfortable position while using the computer and in manipulating the keyboard and mouse. It was expected that those with RA and OA would have more problems manipulating the keyboard and mouse than those with FM because of their restricted movements. However, in this study those with FM reported more problems. The authors hypothesized several explanations: People with FM may have increased clumsiness due to abnormalities in sensory processing or fatigue, they have diffuse rather than localized pain that may affect manipulation, or those with movement limitations, such as RA and OA, have found it easier to adapt their environment than those with unpredictable diffuse pain, such as FM.
In recent years, numerous products have been designed to reduce discomfort and problems during computer use, such as adjustable chairs and monitors and adapted keyboards and mice. "Providing people with arthritis with appropriate strategies and equipment to prevent computer problems may significantly reduce work limitations and prevent those with arthritis from discontinuing computer use," the authors state. They add that computer use in the home appears to have a greater potential to place people at risk for upper extremity musculoskeletal disorders, since most people do not set up their home computer environment to reduce risk factors. Those with arthritis should therefore have both their work and home computer set-ups evaluated to ensure that problems are minimized.
The authors point out that the ability to use a computer is one method of preventing work limitations and eventual disability, as well as a vital tool for both work and home activities. They conclude that "health professionals must work with people with arthritis to identify problems experienced during computer use and implement computer workstation modifications to ensure safe, effective, and comfortable use of all computer equipment."
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