The mouse that roared: Quivering mouse may reduce shoulder pain

A vibrating computer mouse that reminds users to move their hands and rest their arms eases office workers’ shoulder pain, but gets mixed reviews from users in a pilot study conducted by researchers at the Institute for Work & Health.

A quivering computer mouse that prompts users to move their hands and rest their arms decreased shoulder pain in office workers, but not all of them liked using the device. This was the main finding of a recently completed pilot study at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH).  

The vibrating mouse shows promise. An intervention like this holds a lot of potential for practical application, as it targets two common musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) risk factors: static loading and awkward postures, says IWH Knowledge Transfer and Exchange Associate Trevor King. This is important because many office workers are regularly exposed to these hazards, he adds. The study has been accepted for publication in Ergonomics.

Mouse misuse possible source of pain

Studies have shown many office workers suffer shoulder pain, which is worrisome because these workers may be at risk for developing more complex symptoms or MSDs. Debate remains about the cause of this pain. Some studies have pointed to the overuse of certain muscles and long durations of static postures.

Researchers have turned their gaze to the computer mouse as a possible culprit. Studies have found relatively longer mouse use is associated with a greater likelihood of neck pain and discomfort, and preventive actions to avoid symptoms associated with mouse use are often recommended... but where’s the evidence?

Trial tests mouse effectiveness

That’s where this study comes in. An IWH research team, led by Associate Scientist Ivan Steenstra, conducted a randomized controlled trial with the following objectives:

  • to determine if use of a vibrating mouse affects pain and discomfort levels among workers with computer-based tasks, and
  • to gauge how satisfied workers are with using a vibrating mouse.

The vibrating mouse works like this: If a mousing hand remains idle on the mouse for more than 12 seconds, the mouse starts to vibrate as a reminder to move the hand and rest the arm in neutral postures.

Participants in the study were from an organization close to home: 23 office workers from IWH (one subsequently dropped out).  Eleven used a mouse that had the vibrating feature activated, while 11 in the control group did not. To qualify, participants had to use a computer at least four hours a day at work.

One of the main data sources was online questionnaires in which participants were asked about their pain and discomfort. The self-reported symptom data were collected using an online Daily Symptom Survey (DSS), which included a body map that identified areas such as the neck, shoulders and lower back. Participants were asked to rate their pain/discomfort in these areas on a scale of 0 (none) to 10 (severe).

There were several data collection periods, ranging from before researchers activated the mouse to 25 weeks after activation. At each of these times, the DSS was administered for three days in a row.

Majority satisfied with biofeedback mouse

The biofeedback mouse reduced shoulder pain and discomfort among the office workers who used it. And the majority of users (six out of 11) were satisfied with it. They appreciated the gentle reminder to alter their behaviour.

However, the newfangled mouse wasn’t for everyone. Three of the 11 users found it distracting and irritating.

Further research is needed to determine whether the impact of using the mouse holds true in larger field trials and, equally important, how to implement a mouse that is very different from the kind to which people are accustomed.

King notes that IWH researchers are currently helping to develop an online ergonomics training program to address a number of office-based hazards. In the meantime, employees don’t necessarily need a vibrating mouse to alleviate shoulder pain and other MSD symptoms. They can try moving their mouse to the left side of their keyboard and teach themselves to slowly adapt to using the mouse with their left hand, says King. This will reduce workers’ reach to the mouse and allow them the flexibility to switch hands and sides when needed.  

Source: At Work, Issue 70, Fall 2012: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto