The use of a computer, working in awkward positions in your laboratory, and lifting heavy objects are just some examples of tasks that can lead to persistent muscle aches, tendon inflammation, compression of nerves, and subsequent disability that in some cases may be permanent. It could happen to you! Computer Ergonomics Primary Intervention Initiative SOP
The MIT EHS Industrial Hygiene Program is available to provide help for students and staff experiencing ergonomic issues. Each person is encouraged to make changes in their work areas and habits as described in the information provided below. If you still need assistance after making some of these changes, please contact us.
Forearm Pain, Numbness And/Or Fatigue
Activities common to the modern office or laboratory can sometime lead to pain, numbness and/or fatigue in the forearms. On this page you’ll find common causes and remedies for forearm discomfort.
- Pain on the Top-Side of the Forearm
There are many possible causes for pain felt on the top-side of the forearm. People who have a wide “carrying angle” of the elbow and who use a conventional keyboard can sometime experience top-side forearm pain. You can test yourself to find out if you have a wide “carrying angle” – relax your shoulders and allow your arms to hang loosely at your sides. With this relaxed muscle posture, bend your elbows to 90 degrees and keep your hands at a position so your thumbs are directed upward and your wrists are even with your elbows. From this position, rotate your thumbs inward (toward each other). If your elbows move away from your body when you do this, you have a wide “carrying angle”. If you find that you have a wide “carrying angle” you may benefit from replacing your standard keyboard with a split or angled keyboard.
People who drop their wrists onto a wrist rest or other surface while typing or performing another similar activity may also experience top-side forearm pain. Always keep your wrists flat while typing – never drop your wrists downward. It often helps to remove wrist rests to facilitate proper wrist positioning while typing.
Examine your wrist positioning while you are performing activities with your hands. If your wrists bend toward one side, you may experience some top-side forearm pain. Computer users can sometimes deviate their wrists by bending the wrist only when moving the mouse. To help remedy this, attempt to keep your wrists straight while performing your activities. When moving the mouse, move your entire arm rather than just your wrist.
Finally, leaning on your elbows while performing tasks with your hands (e.g., typing, mousing, driving, eating, reading) can sometimes cause top-side forearm pain. This habit should be avoided to help alleviate forearm pain. For computer users, it often helps to lower or remove your chair arms so that the temptation to rest your elbows is eliminated
- Pain on the Bottom-Side of the Forearm
Pain on the bottom-side of the forearm can be caused by having flexed wrists (curled in towards forearm) while performing activities with the hands. Wrists should always be kept flat and in line with the forearms when performing activities.
Bottom-side forearm pain can also be caused by resting your forearms on the edge of your work surface while performing activities. This habit should be avoided, but the edge of your work surface can sometimes be padded with foam or another cushioning material to lessen the pressure applied from the work surface to the forearms.
- Back and Neck Posture and Forearm Pain/Numbness
Many people have poor neck and back posture in which they hold their head forward and away from their body. Over time, this posture can stretch out and weaken the neck and upper back muscles. Once these muscles are affected by this posture, the shoulders can hunch forward causing shortening of the muscles located on the front of the body near the shoulders and chest. This combination of muscular changes can lead to a compression of some of the nerves that emerge from the spinal column and feed in to the arms. This nerve compression can translate into forearm pain/numbness. Although it may not seem obvious that neck and back posture can impact the wellbeing of your arms, it can! That’s why it’s so important to keep a straight posture – especially in your upper back and neck.
- Forearm Fatigue
In addition to forearm pain, forearm fatigue can also be caused by all of the scenarios listed above. Another common cause of forearm fatigue is gripping tools or materials very tightly. To reduce fatigue, grip tools and materials lightly, find tools that are sized to fit your hands, and/or add padding to the grips of your tools.
Finally, most problems with fatigue precipitate from a lack of breaks and rest. You should always be aware of the time over which you work and take breaks at regular intervals. Try to avoid activities outside of work or school that require you to intensively use your arms, wrists, or hands.
- Further Information
The following websites provide some additional information on forearm pain and its causes: