The carpal tunnel is a narrow passage in the wrist through which the median nerve and tendons pass. The median nerve controls movement in the thumb and first three fingers, but not the little finger. Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is a condition where the median nerve is squeezed as it passes through the wrist.
When this nerve is squeezed it can cause tingling, numbness, pain or aching in the hand. These symptoms tend to develop gradually and are often initially worse at night. Sometimes the ache may extend up to the arm, shoulder or neck. CTS can also make it difficult to grip or grasp objects and perform fiddly tasks such as fastening buttons, which can affect a person’s ability to work, depending on their job role. CTS can also be caused by work (see below). According to the Work Foundation, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as CTS account for about 55% of all work-related illness and are therefore a leading cause of sickness absence in the UK.
Risk factors for carpal tunnel syndrome
Carpal tunnel syndrome is more common in women than men and is also more likely to affect middle-aged and elderly people, although it could affect anyone at any time.
Other risk factors for CTS include:
- wrist injury;
- family history of CTS;
- repetitive movements of the hand;
- repeated use of percussive or vibrating tools;
- health conditions such as arthritis and diabetes;
- an underactive thyroid gland.
Treating carpal tunnel syndrome
If possible, try to avoid any activity that causes CTS to become worse. Carpal tunnel syndrome can often be relieved by shaking the wrist, however, this does not always help relieve symptoms. Other treatments include:
- wearing a wrist splint;
- physical therapy such as exercises or stretching. An occupational therapist may be able to advise on suitable activities;
- corticosteroids or corticosteroid injections in the affected area;
- surgery may be recommended when other treatments are not successful.
Those who suffer from CTS during pregnancy usually find that the CTS goes away about six to 12 weeks following the birth of their baby.
If the CTS is caused by another condition such as arthritis, treating this condition can help relieve CTS.
Carpal tunnel syndrome and the workplace
Employers should ensure that adequate risk assessments are carried out in order to identify tasks that could increase risk of CTS or aggravate existing CTS. Industries in which CTS may be a particular risk include assembly line work or jobs that involve sewing, cleaning and food processing. CTS thought to be caused or exacerbated by work may be reportable under the RIDDOR Regulations and employers are advised to seek the opinion of an occupational health professional.
If carpal tunnel syndrome significantly affects a person’s ability to do normal daily activities, then the affected employee may be covered under The Equality Act 2010. Being covered under the act means the individual’s employer is legally obliged to make reasonable adjustments to the role or work environment.
For advice on dealing with carpal tunnel syndrome in the workplace, call the Fit for Work advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English)/0800 032 6233 (Welsh) or visit the Advice Hub. Those is Scotland can call 0800 019 2211 or visit fitforworkscotland.scot.