Wrist-case Scenario

| December 12, 2008

Hours of steering, combined with road vibration, can leave your hands numb and hurting.

Hours of steering, combined with road vibration, can leave your hands numb and hurting.

The problem is carpal tunnel syndrome, which is created by repetitive finger, hand or wrist motion. It’s usually associated with secretarial and assembly work, but federal statistics indicate that carpal tunnel is more common for truckers than for many other workers.

The carpal tunnel is a small gap in the wrist containing the median nerve and tendons.

Repetitive hand motions and prolonged wrist extension can swell the membrane linings, reduce the size of the tunnel and increase the pressure on the median nerve, resulting in numbness, pain and weakness.

A prolonged tight grip on the steering wheel can increase your chance of getting the syndrome, though shifting gears does not appear to be a cause. Diabetes, high blood sugar or tobacco use also increases your vulnerability.

Carpal tunnel begins with frequent burning, tingling, or itching numbness in the palm of the hand and the fingers, especially the thumb and the index and middle fingers. The worst pain usually strikes at night. Within days, the tingling evolves into pain that radiates from wrist to hand or to the forearm. Eventually, it becomes hard to make a fist, and your hand loses strength and dexterity.

Early treatment is important to avoid permanent damage to the median nerve. The first line of treatment for mild carpal tunnel is to wear a wrist brace.

Outpatient surgery may be necessary if there is permanent damage, which is the case for only 1 percent of CTS patients. It involves severing a band of tissue to reduce pressure on the median nerve. Many patients require surgery on both hands.

Fortunately, there are preventive steps. Stretches and self-massage of hands and wrists help. Massaging and stretching increase blood flow, which carries oxygen and nutrition to these areas. You can also wear gloves containing an elastomer – a rubberlike substance that helps absorb shock. A steering wheel pad is also beneficial.


PREVENTING CARPAL TUNNEL SYNDROME

  • Keep wrists straight while driving, hands at the 8 and 4 o’clock positions, and elbows to your sides.

  • Don’t sleep on your hands with your wrists flexed.
  • Bend elbows and keep wrists and fingers straight when lifting.
  • Stretch as much as possible, and do prevention exercises.
  • Wear gloves that absorb vibration. Pad your steering wheel.
  • Modify habits to reduce repetitive stress on your forearms.
  • Quit or decrease smoking to increase oxygen circulation and nerve function.
  • Don’t squeeze a tennis ball or stress ball. That exercise irritates the tendons.
  • Exercise regularly.

EXERCISES FOR THE WRIST

  1. Extend and stretch wrists and fingers as though in a handstand position. Hold for a count of five.

  2. Straighten wrists and relax fingers.
  3. Make a tight fist.
  4. Bend wrists down while keeping the fist. Hold for a count of five. Straighten wrists and relax fingers.

Repeat each exercise 10 times. Drop your arms and shake them for a few seconds.

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