The Pen Tablet

Chris Sorrells, OTR/CHT/CEAS: People come in for all types of computer-related injuries. Some examples are carpal tunnel syndrome, where you have pain, numbness or tingling in the hand; forearm or elbow tendonitis, creating pain in the elbow or forearm; and trigger finger, where the finger can become locked down and unable to move. When these conditions start, they’re often just mildly painful while they’re working; but as they progress, the pain can become constant. It can interrupt sleep, and even make it difficult to work. It’s not uncommon to see people have surgery to alleviate the pain.

Using a mouse forces us to hold one position for a long period of time. Our muscles aren’t designed for this, so it causes overuse and damage to the muscles and tendons. The worst of the risks is repetitive motion; repetitively performing the same motion over and over to move the mouse back and forth, to click the mouse button thousands of times a day, and especially to use the scroll wheel, can cause the tendons to become inflamed, the blood supply to be decreased, and the nerves to become compressed. If you place your hand in your lap, it’ll assume what we call a neutral position. This is where your hand is most balanced, and at rest, and it’s the healthiest position for it to stay in, as well as the most efficient for it to work in. We know from the research that the further we get away from this position, the greater at risk we are for these type of injuries. When you use a mouse, you’re forced out of this neutral position, into a more risky one. The thumb is no longer pointed up, it’s rotated down, into a palm-down position. The wrist is resting on a hard surface – and this is where your carpal tunnel nerve and the blood supply to your hand is. The wrist is then forced to be held toward the ceiling, and we move the wrist back and forth repetitively to move the mouse.

The pen tablet has several advantages. If you compare the neutral position we just discussed with the position you’re in while using the pen tablet, you’ll see they’re almost identical. The hand is only slightly rotated, the carpal tunnel is no longer compressed on the desk, the wrist is relatively straight, and the fingers and thumb assume a gently-flexed position. And when you use the pen, you go through less extreme wrist motion. When most people use a mouse, nearly 100% of the motion occurs at the wrist. The pen tablet encourages motion in the hand, the wrist, the elbow and the shoulder, and we know that the more muscle groups we use, the less likely we are to overuse any one in particular.

Another helpful feature of pen tablets is that you can minimize mousing by performing common functions, like going forward and backward in your Web browser, opening documents or other options simply by pressing on one of the programmable function keys. Scrolling on the mouse often creates pain; this can be done easily on a pen tablet, simply by tapping on the tablet, or a simple swipe of the pen. People often develop sore necks from leaning their head forward to see what’s on their screen; pen tablets can help by easily allowing you to zoom in to see your documents.

Our bodies work best with motion, and changing position frequently. One way to do this is to switch between a pen and a mouse often.

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