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Carpal Tunnel Anonymous

Hi. My name is Adam and I have carpal tunnel syndrome. It’s a bit hard to talk about at first, especially for us guys because carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is not a real guy injury. Guys break bones parachuting from hang gliders onto oil rigs and the like. Guys do not get pains in their hands, wrists, and arms from typing a little too much while sitting in a bad chair.

Well, yes they do. So do women. Face it, if you are reading this on a computer then you may be at risk for CTS or some other repetitive strain injury. Perhaps the hardest part of dealing with these injuries is admitting that you have them. Tonya has a related problem, tendinitis, in her wrists, and after she admitted publicly at work that she couldn’t do as much as she’d like, a number of colleagues came over individually and said that they too had occasional wrist pain. And this is from people who talk on the phone six hours a day (using headsets).

The first thing to do is to immediately send this issue to anyone you know who might be suffering from CTS or a related injury. I mean it. The State of Washington Department of Labor estimates that symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome will develop in 10% of all employed adults in Washington sometime during their employment careers. Surveys of doctors suggest that these sort of injuries are now the major occupational hazard of the Information Age.

It’s also expensive, for you or your insurance company, if you don’t treat it immediately. A study by the American Physical Therapy Association claims that a mild case of CTS can cost between $5,000 and $10,000 in medical care and lost work time, and a serious case that requires surgery on both hands can cost $100,000. If you have bad furniture at work that hurts your wrists, statistics like the one above can help convince even the stingiest employer to replace it. After all, your employer will be paying the worker’s compensation and a good bit of your health insurance premiums.

I’m not going to explain CTS in detail because that’s best explained by a book on the subject or an unusual doctor with time to talk. The basic idea is that several tendons and the median nerve pass through the carpal tunnel, formed by three bones and some tough cartilage, in the forearm and wrist. When you repeatedly bend the wrist at bad angles, you irritate those tendons and the nerve. Irritation leads to inflammation, which in turn leads to more irritation since the carpal tunnel doesn’t have much extra room and the inflamed tendons rub on each other and on the nerve. We’re talking about vicious cycles.

CTS manifests itself in pain from the thumb and next three fingers (another nerve serves the little finger) all the way up to the elbow. We’ve found that overcompensation and stress can also cause pain in the shoulder, neck, and back, and it might even cause migraine headaches if you’re unlucky. The pain can range from minor itching and stiffness (that’s how bad I’ve got it) to flaming shots of white-hot pain searing up and down the fingers whenever you move them. Buttoning a shirt becomes impossible and sleep may as well. What can you do? Read on.

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