Carpal tunnel syndrome is a debilitating condition that causes pain, numbness, and tingling in the hands, wrist, and fingers.
The condition affects a large number of people, including those who work in industries such as meatpacking, food processing, and assembly line work that requires forceful, repetitive hand, and wrist motions.
In this post, we talk about what causes it and how to avoid carpal tunnel at work.
What is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Carpal tunnel syndrome, or CTS, occurs when the median nerve is compressed or irritated.
The median nerve, which runs from the upper arm down through the carpal tunnel into the hand, is one of the primary nerves that supply motor and sensory function in the hands.This nerve provides sensation to the thumb and most of the fingers. It passes through the carpal tunnel, which is a narrow passageway in the wrist that also houses the tendons that bend the fingers and thumb.
Carpal tunnel syndrome can occur when the carpal tunnel becomes narrowed. It can also happen when the area surrounding the tendons and nerve swell, which leads to causes pressure on the median nerve.
This pressure results in numbness, tingling, weakness, and even pain in the affected hand and wrist.
What Types of Jobs Cause Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Carpal tunnel syndrome affects 3 percent to 6 percent of the population in the United States, as many as 1.9 million people. It affects adults from ages 45 to 64 years, although women of any age who are pregnant can also suffer from the condition.
The prevalence of the painful condition increases as the person ages, with a more common occurrence among women than among men. Women are three times more likely than men to develop carpal tunnel syndrome. It can also appear in one or both hands.
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), carpal tunnel injury at work is three times more likely to occur among those who work in assembly operations than in data-entry personnel. Assembly work includes jobs that usually involve food-packing, cleaning, manufacturing, finishing, and sewing.
Based on a 2011 study, increased risks of CTS occurred in assembly workers employed an average of five years in jobs involving repeated and sustained flexion, extension, or deviation of the wrist. Work that requires wrist flexion or extension for at least half of the working day carries a notably high risk of CTS.
What is the Impact of Carpal Tunnel in the Workplace?
The painful symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome can leave workers unable to do their job.
Lost wages and, in many cases, the inability to continue working, can cause severe financial hardship to those suffering from carpal tunnel and medical treatment.
According to 2015 data from the U.S. Department of Labor, the average number of missed workdays due to CTS was 28. Carpal tunnel syndrome affected 3.1% of the adult workforce in 2010.
In California alone, there were 139,336 workers compensation claims for carpal tunnel reported between 2007 and 2014.
Among all work-related injuries, CTS results in the highest number of workdays lost, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Without any medical management, CTS can lead to lasting, negative consequences. Left untreated, it can cause permanent damage to the median nerve, such as numbness and weakness in the fingers. Performing daily activities might become difficult as well, such as lifting boxes, flipping the pages of a book, grasping kitchen utensils, and holding a steering wheel.
How to Avoid Carpal Tunnel at Work
Common remedies to alleviate the symptoms include wearing wrist or hand braces, steroid injections, pain relievers, and carpal tunnel surgery.
There are also alternative treatments such as massage, acupuncture, and hot/cold therapy.
Here are some tips that workers can do while at the workplace or home to relieve the painful symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome :
- Take frequent rest breaks
- If symptoms are caused by repetitive movements, taking frequent breaks, and doing less of the activities that exacerbate the symptoms will help reduce the effects of CTS. Take a ten to fifteen-minute break every hour to allow your hands and wrists to recover.
- Vary hand movements
- Change up your routine to use different hand muscles and movements during your work shift. Alternate tasks that require repetitive hand motions with those that do not. Employers can also try to rotate job tasks among workers.
- Avoid tensing your hand muscles by doing tasks more gently and less tightly. Stress on your muscles can also bring about muscle strain and irritation to the tendons and median nerve.
- Perform stretching exercises
- Try flexing or bending your wrists and hands in the opposite direction of repetitive movements. You can also try making a tight fist and holding it for a second, followed by stretching out the fingers and holding it for a few seconds. Repeat this process several times.
- Ensure correct posture and wrist position
- Good posture and wrist position lowers the risk of developing CTS. Workstations, tools, and devices should be adjusted, so your wrist is maintained in a neutral position while working. Workspaces should be at the right height and distance for the hands and should not cause any strain to the wrists.
- Stay warm.
- The risk of getting CTS is higher when the hands and wrists are exposed to a colder environment. Make sure to keep your hands warm while you work by wearing fingerless gloves.
Download our free ebook for more hand and wrist exercise tips to avoid CTS. Also included are alternative methods to treat your carpal tunnel syndrome.