From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Graduate School Can Produce Pain In More Than Just Your Bank Account

A recent survey of 166 engineering graduate students attending a private southwestern university revealed that 91 (55 percent) experienced upper extremity pain with performing computer activity.  A statistically significant relationship was found between using the computer 20 to 29 hours per week and pain attributed to computer use.  The occurrence of upper extremity symptoms within one hour of performing computer activity was associated with years of computer use and number of school years where computer use was 10 or more hours per week.


• Ten percent claimed that upper extremity symptoms occurred within one hour of performing computer activity
• Fifty-five percent reported that they were experiencing a functional limitation (i.e., difficulty taking notes in class, carrying books) related to their upper extremity condition
• Three percent felt their academic performance was adversely affected by their upper extremity symptoms
• Twenty-three percent sought symptom relief from medication
• Sixteen percent sought treatment for their computer related upper extremity pain/discomfort 

Female subjects were more likely to take medication for computer related upper extremity symptoms and there was a non-statistically significant trend among females of the onset of pain occurring within one hour of computer use.  However, gender was irrelevant for current computer-related upper extremity pain, symptom severity, functional limitations, academic performance, and reporting for healthcare services.

Those who described themselves as a racial/ethnic minority presented a non-statistically significant trend of being more likely to seek healthcare services. There was no association between racial/ethnic minorities groups and reports of current upper extremity computing-related pain/discomfort, symptom severity, functional limitations, academic performance, and taking medication for computer related upper extremity symptoms  

The Bottom Line – How This Applies To Ergonomists

The academic setting has been overlooked as a breeding ground for computer related upper extremity disorders.  Engineering graduate students use computers for long hours over several years in often less-than-optimum environments. Many ergonomists have traveled that path. 

Although this survey does not indicate causality, it does reveal startling information – a 55 percent prevalence of upper extremity computer related symptoms within a young cohort that will likely be long-term heavy computer users in the workplace. The probability of a workers’ compensation case or significant permanent disability seems certain.

Universities, particularly engineering departments, should be aware of the value of ergonomics to protect their product – individuals who become developers of economical/safe solutions to practical problems.
Other Key Points
The greater than 50 percent prevalence of computing-related pain among college students is consistent with three earlier studies.

The authors indicate this study may have selection basis.  Only 60 percent of the engineering graduate students participated.  Another limitation was the sole use of computing duration as the exposure variable relative to upper extremity symptoms.    


This position paper can be acquired at:

Article Title: Upper Extremity Pain and Computer Use Among Engineering Graduate Students: A Replication Study

Publication: American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 52:113-123, 2009

Authors: C C Menéndez, B C Amick, M Jenkins, C Caroom, M Robertson, R B Harrist, and J N Katz

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2009-04-08.