Carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive use injuries

Repetitive use injuries are common in the workplace.

What do these people have in common: Factory or warehouse workers who perform the same motions for hours on end, people who work on computers, delivery persons, mechanics, cashiers, and shelf stockers? At first blush, it may seem like there isn't a link between these disparate professions, but they are all actually, due to the nature of their job duties, particularly susceptible to repetitive use injuries.

Perhaps the most common repetitive use/repetitive trauma injury seen in the workers' compensation context is carpal tunnel syndrome. Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when the tissues surrounding the median nerve traveling through the wrist becomes enflamed and narrows. When this happens, the result is pain, numbness, tingling, weakness, loss of grip strength and limited range of motion.

Diagnosing the condition

One of the difficulties in properly handling carpal tunnel syndrome in the workers' compensation context is that the condition is sometimes misdiagnosed. Pain in the hands could be attributed to a sprained wrist instead of a repetitive motion illness. A pinched nerve in the neck or back could be blamed for numbness, resulting in a treatment protocol that doesn't do anything to alleviate the symptoms. In order to properly diagnose carpal tunnel syndrome, a patient could need several tests, among them:

  • X-ray (to rule out a fracture)
  • Complete medical history
  • Thorough occupational history
  • Comprehensive clinical exam to determine if range of motion or grip have been inhibited
  • Nerve conductivity or EMG testing

Depending on the results of these tests, the doctor can then determine if carpal tunnel is to blame, or if another condition is causing the symptoms.

Treatment

Treatment for carpal tunnel is as varied as the possible causes of it. Some patients respond very well to physical or occupational therapy that stretches muscles and loosens tendons in the wrists and hands. Others may require additional therapies like muscle stretches and ergonomic positioning training. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, naproxen or aspirin may also be needed in order to reduce inflammation in nerve and muscle fibers. For some sufferers, symptoms can be managed by a combination of NSAID use, wearing a support or brace on the affected hand and rest. For others, though, the damage can only be effectively treated with surgical intervention.

Seeking benefits and accommodations

If you are dealing with carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of repetitive motions on the job, you may be eligible to collect workers' compensation benefits and to have your medical treatment covered by your employer. In certain cases, you may also be able to seek reasonable accommodations that will allow you to do your job in a different manner so as to prevent the symptoms from worsening or recurring. Such accommodations might include:

  • Moving your workstation to a different configuration
  • Installing an ergonomic keyboard positioner
  • Taking smaller, more frequent breaks (instead of a single long break like other employees)
  • Transferring to a different position that doesn't have the same type of repetitive strain

It can be difficult to prove carpal tunnel syndrome came from work-related activities, but if you can do so, it is a compensable condition. For more information about getting workers' compensation benefits for carpal tunnel or another repetitive trauma condition, contact a skilled work comp attorney at the Oakland law offices of Uriarte & Carr, LLP.