In August 1994 HOC reported on Compaq’s courtroom victory over a woman who claimed a Compaq keyboard had given her carpal tunnel syndrome, a repetitive strain injury (RSI). Since then, three similar lawsuits brought against IBM have collapsed, and the Clinton Administration’s proposed ergonomic standard for companies is under fire from a Congress hostile to government regulation.
Linda Urbanski, one of the three whose cases against IBM floundered (she did, however, settle with Apple in a related suit) is now going back to college to get a degree in human services. A 100-words-a-minute typist before the injury that left her thumbs, wrists, biceps, and shoulders thick with pain every day, she says, “I will never be able to go back to the business world and earn the living I did.”
Maybe she will. Although the possibility of compensation for the estimated 1,000 to 3,000 RSI sufferers currently in litigation has grown bleaker, there’s now a laser light at the end of the tunnel. A new medical device may bring relief–without painful surgery and months of recovery–to the 18 million people afflicted with RSI.
Looking Into Lasers Developed by California-based LaserMedics, the Microlight 830 device produces a laser light that penetrates deep into skin tissue. One researcher, Dr. Alan Lichtbraun of the American College of Rheumatology, has used it to treat clients with RSIs, arthritis, sciatica, and other problems. Patients are exposed to the laser two to four times per treatment, 33 seconds each time. This goes on once or twice a week for five or six weeks. The laser stimulates a chain of chemical reactions that soup up the tissue’s healing properties, regenerate damaged nerves, and reduce inflammation.
Researcher Dr. Larry Goldfarb, a New Jersey chiropractor, cites a four-year study of more than 3,600 patients that shows the laser was effective in 98 percent of tendonitis cases and removed pain in 76 percent of the cases overall. Although the treatment is still docked in the experimental stage, a spokesperson for LaserMedics says the company is hopeful that the Food and Drug Administration will approve the Microlight 830 for widespread treatment sometime in 1996.
An Ounce of Prevention In the future, judicial and legislative reluctance to compensate RSI sufferers may be rendered irrelevant by alternative keyboards. Microsoft reports that it has sold more than 200,000 of its Natural Keyboards since their introduction in September 1994. Lexmark, Apple, and Key Tronic have also enjoyed success with their adjustable keyboards. And Graphics Technology has found an eager audience for its SimpleTouch, a device you clip over the front of your monitor to turn it into a touchscreen, much like an ATM.
Alternatives to keyboards may help, too. In support of industry gurus who predicted that voice applications would be the “killer apps” of the 1990s, Apple’s Plain Talk, Dragon Systems’s DragonDictate, IBM’s Personal DictationSystem, and others are sporting drastically slashed price tags. And prices for speech-recognition software could drop below $500 within another year. All this will someday make the jam-your-fingers-down-hard keyboard seem as archaic as dentistry without Novacaine.