Hand/Wrist Disorders among Sign Language Communicators

By Smith, Susan M.; Kress, Tyler A. et al. | American Annals of the Deaf, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Hand/Wrist Disorders among Sign Language Communicators


Smith, Susan M., Kress, Tyler A., Hart, William M., American Annals of the Deaf


The study assessed the frequency of self reported hand/wrist problems among sign language communicators, including interpreters, deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals, and educators. Comparisons were also made between sign language communicators and the general population regarding the frequency of medically diagnosed carpal tunnel syndrome. A survey was mailed to attendees of a national conference that focused on the quality of postsecondary educational opportunities for students with hearing deficits. Fifty-nine percent of 184 respondents reported experiencing hand/wrist problems. Twenty-six percent reported experiencing hand/wrist problems severe enough to limit the ability to work, and 18% reported a medical diagnosis of wrist tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or both. The frequency of self reported, medically diagnosed carpal tunnel syndrome for the surveyed sign language communicators was five times the rate experienced by working Americans between ages 18 and 60 years (Tanaka, Wild, Seigman, Halperin, Behrens, & Futz-Anderson, 1995). The study supports increased emphasis on and availability of hand/wrist disorder risk reduction programs for sign language users.

The risk factors associated with hand/wrist disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome are a concern for those who use sign language communication. The frequency with which hand/wrist disorders strike interpreters, individuals who are hard of hearing or deaf, and others who use sign language as their primary means of communication must be determined if highrisk populations are to be targeted for additional awareness and risk reduction efforts.

Sign language is the fourth most used language in the United States, yet sign language communicators have been largely ignored as a population at risk for the development of hand/wrist disorders (Podhorodecki & Spielholz, 1993). Although information exists on frequency of hand/wrist disorders for numerous occupational specialties (e.g., meat cutters and construction workers), no analogous information is found in the literature on sign language communicators, except for small studies focusing on professional interpreters. These studies focus on cumulative trauma disorders involving the hand or wrist, including carpal tunnel syndrome, and indicate that interpreters are at significant risk.

In a 1992 study, DeCaro, Feuerstein, and Hurwitz found that tendinitis was the most common hand/wrist disorder among a group of professional interpreters. Stedt (1990, 1992) found evidence of carpal tunnel syndrome in a limited study of 40 educational sign language interpreters. R. N. Norris, director of the Center for Repetitive Motion Disorders, National Rehabilitation Hospital, Bethesda, MD, warned interpreters about work-related dangers and the potential for development of repetitive strain injuries (Norris, 1996). The frequency of motion generated by the hand and wrist during interpreting can easily exceed 200 motions per minute. Sessions are often 50 minutes long.

Those using sign language for total communication or as an important occupational tool (such as teachers, counselors, and administrators) need to be aware of the frequency of hand/ wrist problems and the behaviors that increase risk.

Victims of carpal tunnel syndrome experience pain and other symptoms ranging from numbness of the hands or fingers at night (severe enough to cause awakening) to an inability to grasp objects firmly. For those with carpal tunnel syndrome, continuing the problem motions without adequate care or rest can further damage tissue and nerves and eventually can prohibit the individual from continuing his or her regular work or home activities. For deaf individuals, this problem can reduce or eliminate the ability to use their primary means of communication.

Purpose

The present study was initiated to assess the frequency of self-reported hand/wrist problems among sign language communicators and to study whether interpreters, deaf or hard of hearing individuals, and others who use sign language as a primary means of communication have a greater frequency of medically diagnosed carpal tunnel syndrome than the general population. …

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