EHS Today editorinchief Sandy Smith

Sandy Says: Carpal Tunnel Blues

On a rare and glorious 70-degree March day in the Midwest, I was in a mood more suited to a blizzard in late January.

As I sat on my back patio with a cup of coffee on a late morning that more resembled May than March, I was in a bitter and salty mood (not a good flavor combination). Yes, the coffee tasted wonderful. Yes, the smell of the earth carried with it a whiff of spring. Yes, the sun was warm on my face. And all I could think about was the fact that I had to lift the coffee cup with two hands because neither one of mine was operating at full capacity.

You see, I had a major flare-up of carpal tunnel inflammation in the past 2 months and nothing I did – taking time off, employing wrist rests, staying off the computer and smart phone after I leave work, dosing myself with over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, wearing wrist braces – had helped. Pain and frustration forced me to the doctor, who prescribed a course of steroids in a last-ditch attempt to avoid surgery. Since I previously never experienced so much as a twinge of pain or discomfort that could be linked to carpal tunnel, this has been a real eye opener of an experience.

As someone who types on a computer all day, every day, and who has done it for way more years than I publicly will admit, I've known that carpal tunnel syndrome was a real possibility for me. As someone who writes about ergonomics and musculoskeletal disorders, I know all about stretching, workplace accommodations, workload management, taking breaks, etc. But the advent of smart phones, 24/7 connectivity, longer workdays and greater workloads finally broke my will to respect my body and its limitations and broke my hands.

My life for the past 2 months was pain-filled and miserable. I had to think before I reached for a doorknob. I couldn't hold a fork properly. I couldn't sign my name or take handwritten notes. I had to lift a coffee cup with two hands and I had to be careful when getting dressed so as not to cause shooting pains from my fingertips to my elbows. Turning a key in a lock became an almost overwhelming challenge. Everyday life became exhausting!!

carpal tunnelThe measures I've taken to limit the hours I spend on a keyboard, as well as the steroids prescribed by my doctor, worked their magic. I'm able to lift a coffee cup – even a coffee pot – with one hand. I can walk my dogs, mop the floor and dress myself like I did a few months ago.  Today, I tied a pair of shoes all by myself with almost as much pride as I felt the first time I did it at the age of five (I was a slow learner). 

This experience has given me a powerful and profound sense of respect and understanding for workers who experience chronic pain as the result of work-related injuries or disabling medical conditions.  After 2 months, I'm throwing in the towel and screaming, "Uncle!" I can't even imagine living with this pain day in and day out indefinitely,  yet millions of people do.

From the outside, I looked the same as always. On the inside, I was tired, aching, aggravated, frustrated and miserable. Not only that, I was a distracted and non-productive worker. Our ever-increasing workloads and lack of downtime don't just take a toll on our personal lives, they take a toll on our bodies. Remember that.

Send an email with your thoughts to sandy.smith@penton.com

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