Articles & Photos
Quilting, Computing, and Your Health
by Gloria Hansen © 2007. All Rights Reserved.
She was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful wrist condition widely believed to be caused by compression of the median nerve. Dian's doctor said, "Quit the computer, quit the quilting, quit the knitting. Quit whatever it is that is causing this and the pain will go away." After various unsuccessful treatments, Dina eventually had surgery on her right hand and, six months later, on her left hand.
Julie Larsen of Issaquah, Wash., was diagnosed with both carpal tunnel syndrome and DeQuervai's syndrome - a debilitating injury affecting the ability to move the thumb. Julie believes her problems started from "too much knitting." She also quilts and is a CPA spending "way too much time at a computer." She tried various treatments until she ultimately had surgery for both syndromes.
Dian and Julie suffered through conditions labeled Cumulative Trauma Disorders (DTD) or Repetitive Stress Injuries (RSI). CTD and RSI are umbrella terms used to cover many problems that can arise from the accumulation of small traumas or stresses to the body - sometimes called microtraumas. Microtraumas occur when muscles and tendons are worked without adequate time to rest and heal. The cumulative effects of doing something seemingly innocent for long periods of time can lead to injuries (such as microscopic tearing in tendons or compression of nerves) which cause pain, swelling or, as in Dian's and Julie's case, serious conditions requiring surgery for relief.
Pain from microtrauma does not occur suddenly. It may take months or even years before a problem is noticed. Not all repetitive motions will eventually cause harm. Several people doing the same activity might result in one person developing a sore wrist another a sore back, another sore eyes, and still another with no problem at all. Listen to your body. Do not ignore what it's trying to tell you. Julie stated, "If you start having a problem (numbness or tingling, weakness or pain), get to the doctor It is so much easier to splint the affected area and take anti-inflamatories while the injury is just starting to appear than it is to treat it four months down the line."
Ergonomics is a branch of science and design focused on the interaction between the body and the machine. If a device is deemed ergonomically correct - and many such devices and sets are available - its use may alleviate the stresses that can cause an RSI. Changes in your work area can decrease the likelihood of developing an injury. Julie stated, "If you work with computers, have the ergonomics of your setup checked, specifically the tile of your keyboard. You want your hands pointing down and in, not up and out as most folks have their keyboards." Keep in mind that ergonomics is a very personal thing; no one product can address every person's needs. In addition to using proper form, you might try various devices to determine what works best for you.
Dian offered the most obvious, yet often ignored, advice for preventing injury: "Do repetitive things only for a short period of time. Break everything into small segments."
TIFAQ (Typing Injury Frequently Asked Questions), an extensive Internet recourse, suggests taking a three-second break after every three minutes. Software and shareware programs will remind you to take breaks from your computer. See http://www.shareware.com and search "repetitive stress" for a list of shareware.
Linda Hershfield of Flushing, N.Y., also experienced repetitive stress problems. She sought treatment early and didn't need surgery. She echoed Dian's sentiment and told me that she uses a timer to limit her activities. "I set my timer for 30 minutes. When the bell goes off, I stop whatever I'm doing and go do something else. If I'm sewing, I'll get up and walk around."
Many books, organizations, and Internet web sites are available to education you on RSI. If you have Internet access, I highly recommend visiting the Computer Related Repetitive Strain Injury page. The site is the official publication of the University of Lincoln-Nebraska. It contains illustrations, photos, informative text, and an extensive set of links to all things RSI-related.
You can keep up with the latest development with CTDs by reading the monthly newsletter, DTD News . A sample issue available either through the mail or via the web page. If you're not able to access the information online, questions about DTDNew products can be obtained by calling (800) 341-7874 or by fax at (215) 784-9639.
An excellent book written specifically for quilters is "The Hidden Hazards of Quilting" by Cathy Watts. Cathy is a physical therapist and quilter. She combined her knowledge of physiotherapy and quilting into an informative and straightforward book specifically for quilters wanting to prevent aches and pains. It includes some of the best information I've come across on selecting and custom-adjusting a chair. There's also a good selection of exercises and a helpful chapter loaded with suggestions on surviving "a marathon workshop experience."
As quilters and computer users, we often place excessive demands on our bodies; it's not unusual to continue working when our fatigued muscles beg us to stop, when our sore eyes can barely focus, when our fingers ache and tingle. Working through discomfort becomes secondary when a seemingly important primary goal implores us to continue. When your body is pleading for your attention, listen. The most important goal may be maintaining your good health.
For more information on "The Professional Quilter," a quarterly journal for professional quilters, please click here.