Was the epidemic of carpal tunnel syndrome overstated?
"At its height of diagnosis, anybody showing up at a doctor's office with wrist pain or hand pain was being diagnosed with carpal tunnel," said Carol Harnett, vice president of insurer Hartford Financial Services Group's group benefits division.
Since then, carpal tunnel cases have plummeted, declining 21 percent in 2006 alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among workers in professional and business services, the number of carpal tunnel syndrome cases fell by half between 2005 and 2006.
First, it may not have been the white-collar epidemic it appeared to be.
A 2001 study by the Mayo Clinic found heavy computer users (up to seven hours a day) had the same rate of carpal tunnel as the general population. Harvard University headlined a 2005 news release: Computer use deleted as carpal tunnel syndrome cause.
"Clearly, if keyboarding activities were a significant risk for carpal tunnel, we should have seen, over the last 10 to 15 years, an explosion of cases," said Dr. Kurt Hegmann, director, the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational & Environmental Health. "If keyboarding were a risk, it cannot be a strong factor."
Blue-collar workers, especially those doing assembly line work such as sewing, cleaning and meat or poultry packing, have a far greater incidence of carpal tunnel than white-collar workers, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
That doesn't mean white-collar workers don't get carpal tunnel and related disorders. But it may mean such disorders were overdiagnosed when they were most in the news, resulting in an artificially high number of cases by the late 1990s. Most doctors have dropped the term RSI, calling them "musculoskeletal disorders" while government agencies like "cumulative trauma disorders."
Now, some experts think some of those patients had "referred pain" from trouble elsewhere, such as the neck. Other theories claim attention to ergonomics has prevented injuries, or that they have become underreported because they lack the immediacy of a broken bone.