UT Study Links Sign Language, Hand Disorders

KNOXVILLE — Frequent users of sign language have up to five times greater risk of developing certain hand and wrist problems than non-users, a University of Tennessee study shows.

Dr. Susan Smith

Dr. Susan Smith

Dr. Susan Smith, the UT professor who conducted the study, said women are more at risk than men of disabilities such as carpal tunnel and tendinitis.

Of frequent sign language users surveyed, Smith found 59 percent reported hand and wrist problems. A fourth percent said it affected their work, and 18 percent had received a medical diagnosis of tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or both.

The medical diagnosis rate for carpal tunnel and tendinitis is five times higher than the normal rate for working Americans age 18-60, said Smith, assistant professor of health and safety sciences.

Sixty-four percent of women and 42 percent of men in the study reported problems.

Smith said the National Center for Repetitive Motion Disorders has issued warnings about potential injuries from sign language, but few researchers have studied it.

Signing

“Although information exists on hand and wrist disorders for numerous occupational specialties — such as meat cutting, construction work, and typing — very little is found for sign language communicators,” Smith said.

“This study shows that those people are at significant risk.”

Smith said hand and wrist movements of frequent sign language users such as interpreters, educators, and the deaf and hearing impaired often exceed 200 motions per minute. High usage rates extended over long periods without adequate care or rest can result in permanent damage, she said.

“For hearing impaired people who rely on sign language as a major form of communication, the pain, discomfort, or inability to sign seriously affects quality of life, work, and communication,” Smith said.

Dr. Tyler Kress, UT assistant professor of biomechanical engineering, and William Hart, Oak Ridge Associated Universities nurse, also worked on the study, which was published in the March issue of American Annals of the Deaf.