Jack-hammering increases risk of carpal tunnel syndrome.
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Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by compression of the median nerve at the base of the hand, just above the wrist. Research has shown that CTS can develop as a result of certain job duties. According to the March 2011 issue of "Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation," 3 out of every 10,000 full-time workers are affected by this problem. Construction workers are particularly susceptible to CTS due to the stresses placed on their hands and wrists.
The median nerve travels down the front of your forearm and through the carpal tunnel. It powers the muscles that bend your fingers and wrist, and muscles that move your thumb. It also provides sensation to the palm-side of your thumb, index, middle and half of your ring finger. Compression of the median nerve with carpal tunnel syndrome causes pain, tingling and numbness to this area of your hand and can lead to weakness in your grip and pinch strength.
Construction workers are at high risk for carpal tunnel syndrome because of several factors. Repetitive hand movements, such as hammering and other manual tool use, strain the muscles attached to the tendons traveling through the carpal tunnel. Inflammation develops and pressure increases on the median nerve. Construction workers use vibrating hand tools, and vibration is a risk factor for CTS. Sustained postures with the wrist bent forward or backward increase pressure on the median nerve. Construction workers spend significant amounts of time using their hands in awkward positions, contributing to the list of risk factors for CTS.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is treated based on the severity of symptoms. Early on, pain and tingling often occur at night, disrupting sleep. At this point, a doctor may recommend wearing splints while sleeping to hold the wrist in a straight, neutral position to reduce pressure on the median nerve. The doctor may prescribe antiinflammatory medication to reduce swelling in the carpal tunnel. In some cases, surgery is required to release pressure on the nerve. The transverse carpal ligament, lying across the top of the carpal tunnel, is cut to increase space for the tendons and nerve. According to a 2012 article in "The Open Orthopaedics Journal," approximately 70 to 90 percent of those who have this surgery have good to excellent long-term results.
Carpal tunnel symptoms may interfere with a construction worker's ability to safely perform the job. Numbness and weakness interfere with using tools and carrying objects. In some cases, light duty work allows the employee to continue to work until symptoms improve. When surgical intervention is required, most manual workers are able to return to work after 6 weeks of recovery.
The key to reducing carpal tunnel syndrome in construction workers is prevention. Ergonomic principles -- as defined by the U.S. Department of Labor -- aim to fit job demands and environmental conditions to the capabilities of the worker. For construction workers, these principles include the use of proper body mechanics, use of tools that minimize force on the hands, taking frequent rest breaks, mixing job tasks to avoid staying in the same position for too long, using tools specifically fitted to the worker and wearing padded gloves when operating vibrating tools.