Are You at Risk For Carpal Tunnel?

Are You at Risk For Carpal Tunnel?

Some of the risk factors may surprise you.

When you think of work-related injuries or occupational hazards, you may think of black lung disease or injuries from dangerous machinery. Wrist pain seems pretty mild by comparison, but a case of carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) can keep you out of work for as long as a month all together, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s longer than cuts, chemical burns and even amputations.

CTS is often thought of as a white-collar workers’ condition, but that may not be true. Research hasn’t proven that typing or using a mouse causes CTS. People who work on assembly lines, people who sew and people who clean, however, do get carpal tunnel syndrome. And carpal tunnel causes aren’t just work-related—you can get the condition from injuries, arthritis and even pregnancy and common chronic conditions. Read on to find out what carpal tunnel syndrome is, how it happens, if you’re at risk and what you can do to prevent it.  

The carpal tunnel, explained
First, what is the carpal tunnel? It’s an inch-wide hollow space in your wrist, formed by the carpal bones and a ligament. Tendons that allow you to move your fingers and one of the main nerves for the hand all run through the carpal tunnel. 

When the tunnel becomes narrow or when the tendons swell, that puts pressure on the nerve. Over time, pressure on the nerve can result in pain, tingling, numbness and weakness in the hand.

Who’s at risk for carpal tunnel syndrome?
Women are three times more likely than men to get carpal tunnel syndrome. Researchers theorize that it may be because women’s wrists are usually smaller than men’s, and therefore their carpal tunnels are narrower. There also may be a genetic component.

Repetitive motion can also cause CTS, but not in the way you think. People who work on assembly lines have a three times greater risk of developing CTS than office workers. People who work with vibrating hand tools such as drills also develop CTS often.

Be careful with your smartphone. A June 2017 study of 48 college students found that intensive users—those who used electronic devices for five hours a day or more—had much greater wrist and hand pain than those who used their phones less. Other studies have found that more smartphone use was associated with thicker nerves, tendons and other soft tissue within the carpal tunnel, which contributed to carpal tunnel pain. 

Other conditions that can contribute to carpal tunnel syndrome include:

  • Sprains and fractures
  • Thyroid disease
  • Arthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Pregnancy
  • Pituitary gland disorders

CTS symptoms
Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome often begin gradually and many times are worse at night. That’s because many people sleep with their wrists curled, which puts pressure on the nerve. Numbness, tingling and pain are common early symptoms.  Some symptoms can be intermittent at the beginning stages. Weakness of the hand is another telling sign of CTS. You may have difficulty performing fine motor tasks like buttoning your clothes, or feel pain when using a phone or driving. If CTS is left untreated, nerve damage can cause the symptoms to become permanent.

What you can do
There are a number of treatments for CTS. One of the first treatments to try is splinting. Wear the splint at night at first, but if symptoms persist, you may have to wear the splint during the day as well. Other treatments include heat, ice, painkillers such as ibuprofen (NSAIDs) and corticosteroids.

If these don’t work, you can consider carpal tunnel release surgery. This is an outpatient surgery, so no hospital stay is necessary. Carpal tunnel release involves cutting through the ligament that’s pressing on the nerve to make more room in the tunnel. A surgeon will either open up the wrist or use endoscopic surgery through two smaller cuts. Recovery can last anywhere from several weeks to several months, or longer. You’ll need to splint your wrist after the surgery and undergo physical therapy to strengthen the wrist and hand.  

If you’re someone who is at risk for CTS because your job involves making repetitive movements with your hands, it can be hard to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome. Use proper ergonomics at work, ask your employer if any accommodations are possible, have good posture, and exercise to strengthen your fingers, hands, wrists, forearms, shoulders and neck.

Medically reviewed in October 2018.

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