Cured! James Gosling’s carpal tunnel miracle

SAN FRANCISCO — The last time he was in Toronto, in the summer of 1999, James Gosling couldn’t shake hands.

After 20 years of 10-hours-a-day coding, the Calgary engineering grad who pioneered the Java programming language was crippled by carpal tunnel syndrome, a repetitive stress injury

that left his wrists bandaged in graphite casts and his fingers pretty much useless on a keyboard.

Yet here he was a few nights ago at an international press reception for Sun Microsystems Inc.’s first annual SunNetwork conference, holding court, gesturing and gesticulating with the best of ’em.

“”Amazing. A total miracle,”” Gosling says of the surgery to repair the damage.

Any serious code warrior is at risk of carpal tunnel syndrome. Tendons passing under a ligament across the wrist are surrounded a lubricating jacket of sorts. Pressure from the ligament causes the jacket to swell. But like a muscle that builds up under constant work to support the load, the jacket also grows permanently.

The growth is not only a painful condition, it impedes nerves that control the smaller muscles of the fingers. Sufferers are eventually reduced from keyboarding speed-demons to hunt-and-peck typists (a technique which causes its own repetitive stress damage in the elbows and shoulders).

“”I don’t know anyone who’s got to the 20, 25-year mark without serious RSI problems,”” Gosling says.

Gosling turned to Stanford Orthopedic and Rehabilitation (SOAR) for surgical relief. He had his right hand fixed in 1999, his left a year later.

The surgery is quite simple – doctors sever the ligament, which knits back together with scar tissue, having added a crucial extra few millimetres of headroom for the tendons. But it’s one of the few surgical procedures that provide almost instantaneous relief.

Gosling says after his first surgery, he was waving his hand in the recovery room when he “”felt something weird.”” It took him a while to pin it down. It was the feeling of air passing against his fingers — something he hadn’t felt in years.

“”I said, ‘I’m an engineer again,'”” he says.

Gosling, who remains a vice-president and fellow with Sun Labs, continued gesticulating recklessly during his keynote at the SunNetwork conference, which wrapped up Friday.

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Dave Webb
Dave Webb
Dave Webb is a technology journalist with more than 15 years' experience. He has edited numerous technology publications including Network World Canada, ComputerWorld Canada, Computing Canada and eBusiness Journal. He now runs content development shop Dweeb Media.

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