« Freakonomics Radio

138. Whatever Happened to the Carpal Tunnel Epidemic?

2013-09-12 | 🔗
Once upon a time, office workers across America lived in fear of a dreaded infirmity. Was the computer keyboard really the villain -- and did carpal tunnel syndrome really go away?
This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
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That is a great question. Whatever did happen to the Carpal tunnel syndrome epidemic I'm happy from w and my see this is free economics, radio, the pie, calves that explores the hidden side of everything. Here's your host Stephen Governor, so let s arm and when we first met as that Europe offers numerous issues,
go and your computer had one was keyboards sort, a folded up in the middle. You type can like you're playing a Concertinas or pushbutton accordion. So was that all about man, careful tunnel? So when I was a graduate student, I decided to type in the data from every congressional election that had ever occurred in the United States, and I got the big books and I had this horrible typing tat. This is back in about ninety ninety ninety, ninety one billion internet, so here, I was I type in this date. I got really good. I used my right hand keypad, and I got to be tremendously fast and after about ten hours straight to doing that, I get off computer or a man. My wrist would be tired, but I think Lugs is tired. Out do a day after day after day probably took me two weeks to type inhabited by the end of the two eggs. My wrist ached in some robbed and was numb, and I couldn't sleep at night at that,
this will go away, and I never heard a competence. I fear is nothing. Seven years later, I was still weeping when my arm dangling off to bed you knew me when you first Mammy, I couldn't open a cannon pickles to save my life. I'm right wrist was totally to buildings and the many of the whole thing is that, as soon as I finish typing the data I ran into a professor Harvard who said. Oh, you just type in the data. I've already had all that keep Einstein. Could you give it to you So there was a period right around the time that you, as a grad student term, word doing all this data entry, starting on journalism and you'd walk into any newsroom at the time you walk in the New York Times and it looked kind of like a pulley award. All these people with braces and all the
set ups in their sitting and, like the Ergonomics Department was having a great period of activity because it was, it felt like an epidemic were to go hungry. Question I think, partly once people knew about the damage when he started to hurt, stop they changed or set up partly allowed. It was probably psychosomatic re ones. Everyone talks about how some problem is great way to get out of work crazy, skip a few weeks of work. By saying and now I can't I've Hunter keyboard for a few weeks, I don't know, maybe people don't work as hard as I used to. Maybe they spend all their time clicking around on Facebook in when they're supposed to be typing up his toys at the New York Times it's another possibility. Eve Levitt does not know the answer to this question. So, let's try to find someone who does someone who can explain why
I with so many more people typing in texting these days, the average office no longer looks like a polio, roared and actually feel Gimme licence. I'll. Take the story back to three hundred years before that that's Bradley Evan off he's an m d and Professor Washington unit, Saint Louis any specializes in occupational matters. The first textbook of occupational medicine is written by an italian physician. Bernardino rum is any who was working in Padua in the way one thousand six hundred in early one thousand, seven hundred how I'm so he writes this book called diseases of workers, and he describes in this wonderful, so 18th century prose how work can be harmful to you and read the first line:
because we don't write medical texts like this anymore, but he says various and manifold is the harvest of diseases reaped by certain workers from the crafts and trades that they pursue all the profit that they get right is a fatal injury to their health, so he describes two main causes of occupational injury and One of these causes here he says there are certain violent and irregular motions and unnatural pastures of the body and that these result in no serious diseases that gradual develop, so one such disease is what eventually comes to be known as carpal tunnel syndrome. That is what happens when a nerve that runs through your careful tunnel, which is, at the base of your hand, gets pinched or squeezed.
and it's easy to see how that might happen. If you're shoeing a horse for twelve hours a day and eighteenth century ITALY, let's fast forward to the early twentieth century, the same- The idea was advanced by a New York surgeon named Harry Finkel, STI, here's Evan off again And he is surrounded by a patient population that are working in the garment district The problem is more aware of work, including housework and women's work, and he described sort of ringing cloths and chopping wood and doing other hand intensive task, even that are occurring in the home and so of thinking steam. In talking about hand, ten denied us makes no bones about the fact that he thinks that chronic trauma from hand, intensive activities are a major cause and at one point says they lay
Bring classes are most frequently affected, so there's no dispute there. The cause of the problem is violent and irregular. She's an unnatural postures among certain kinds of workers, but then the story gets more complicated, there's another certain George fail in Cleveland Clinic who comes along and helps to develop the operation to become standard for people who suffer from carpal tunnels and jump. So his opinion carries week, which is a problem because, as Bradley Evan off tells it
felons opinion is kind of off. So he is ardently convinced that work is not a causal factor for purple tunnel syndrome and repeatedly referred to it as some an idiot path. It cause and kitty path is latin for you. We now know why did fail and think the cause was Didier path. It perhaps because a lot of his patients were women. He basically says women. Don't do heavy work with their hands. I didn't see. Variant men are the men. I saw only one head and activity that he thought was abnormal or out of the way in Jenin says, like muscle, closing women and women. Don't women done too heavy work for their hands its network
So for many years. That was the prevailing view that careful tunnel syndrome was this murky real, but not wait real affliction but then in the early nineties, Seventys the Occupational and Safety Health Administration or OSHA was founded and so
they very early on started reporting on the high rates of hand and wrist problems that were seen in some occupations and trades, and then I think there were also economic forces in the 70s and 80s that probably did increase the actual rate of carpal tunnel syndrome, and these were in manufacturing and meat. Packing in a number of industries has reported that the line speeds had increased for the first time, work related injuries like hand and wrist pain, we're not only reported and tracked or eligible for compensation. So I think that, prior to around one thousand nine hundred and eighty five or so there's really very few cases of carpal tunnel syndrome that are paid for out of workers compensation. Then you see this big growth between one thousand nine hundred and eighty five in about one thousand nine hundred and ninety five, where many more case,
claimed as work related, and this is the so called epidemic of carpal tunnel syndrome that got people quite interested and focused on city us in the late eighties early nineties. Coming up on for economics, radio, how big was the carpet tunnel epidemic and was the spike really due to the arrival of the computer keyboard? I think it is mostly a misconception.
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I have a kid about all these topics so come on this journey. With as we learn from some of the poorest smartest people in their fields. If then, is out now just search, if slash than to find the show that, if slash then no spaces, listen in stature, Apple, the serious Ex m F or wherever you get your PA casts W and Y see. This is for economics, radio. Here's your host Stephen Debonnair! Today we are trying to answer a question that a friend asked about Carpal tunnel syndrome how it seemed to become an epidemic when offices started using lots of computer I saw this first hand in mid making nineties when I was working at the New York Times, here's Bradley Evan off he's a professor of medicine at washing
universe. So there were several newsrooms where there were a couple of cases of carpal tunnel syndrome, and I think this got a lot of attention in the journalistic world in, I think, probably helped promote the keyboard as the main source of exposures that were relevant carpal tunnel syndrome, when in fact it would be much better to work as a journalist than to work as an attacker. The notion that office workers are particularly prone to carpal tunnel syndrome. According to Doktor Evan off largely faults. I think it is mostly a misconception are some types of keyboard, jobs that are at a higher risk for carpal tunnel syndrome, and this would be people who are like a transcriptionist or data entry. People were all they do for eight hours, a day's is pound,
keyboard most people that working in office settings are not in a king position, whether continuously king for the entire day. In fact, in our studies, the officer clerical workers are actually the low risk group with whom were comparing these saw. Construction of manufacturing workers, too, were comparing this high risk group to the office. People who are the group at lowest risk the number of carpal tunnel cases that qualify for workmen's compensation peak in the midnight to ninety seven off says and then drops off really sharply after that, but that hardly means
The carpet tunnel syndrome has gone away overall Ivanov says it between one and two percent of american workers today suffer from it and the numbers are much higher in certain fields right. So, if you look at construction workers, you may find that five to eight percent have couple tunnel syndrome. Some of the highest reported rates have been in manufacturing and food processing and there's some food processing jobs. Where, if you go in and examined all the workers, you may find it up to twenty percent have a couple tunnel syndrome. I think the slaughterhouses and meet packing plants of some of.
highest exposures, and here they come in squawking at one end and go out wrapped himself. At the other end, you can imagine the amount of handwork that is involved in cutting up two thousand chickens an hour or cutting up a cow into its constituent pieces. Other types of food processing are dairy, some vegetable, picking and processing it anything that requires people to grab something move. It twisted cut it packet, stack it pull it and to do that, thousands of times a day is a job that set high risk for carpal tunnel syndrome, as well as for other disorders of the hand and risk
ten denied us or epiglottis, so purple tunnel syndrome is unfortunately alive and well among construction workers and food processing workers, mug, shafts and professional. petitions, even among some journalists here and there, but it no longer captures the attention of journalists and therefore you no longer here about it so much journalists. As you probably know, we love to write about ourselves, so If carpal tunnel syndrome isn't happening so much in the newsroom. Well, if a tree falls in the forest and no one's round to hear it,
Does it make a sound? No, not your tree little guy you're, fine, hey! Thanks to that question. Today, Maybe we'll go out on a limb again sometime. My pleasure, it I guess, listeners. Next week we re one of our favorite episodes, the economists guide to parenting. It's a data driven, look at what really matters when it comes to raising your kids, it doesn't matter how many activities your kids do, whether they go to museums, at least in turn. Academic success, Roland Friar and I could find no Evans said those sort of parental choices and putting kids into battle.
kind of culture cramming and be together, but none of that can be correlated at all with academic success. Should parents skip the museum trip in the ballet class? That's next time on for economics, radio, freak economics? Radio is produced by W and Y see and debonair productions. Our staff includes David Herman Gregory Zawoiski. Ray Lamb, Susie Lichtenberg, increase ban in. If you want more frequent, comics radio, you can subscribe to our Pakistan Itunes or go to free economic saw com. real, fine lots of radio, a blog, the books more. Were slain the family stone? Actually, the first. I think it either,
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Transcript generated on 2021-03-15.