In many cases, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) results strictly from overuse activities though, as we have discussed previously, other conditions such as hypothyroid, taking birth control pills, pregnancy, diabetes, obesity, and certain types of arthritis can also be involved as a contributor and / or the sole cause. When these conditions are present, they must be properly treated to achieve a favorable result. However, the majority of cases are the result of a repetitive motion injury. So, the question remains: What is the role of the patient regarding activity modification during the treatment process of CTS? How important is it?
To answer this question, let’s look at a fairly common type of CTS case. In our hypothetical case, the patient is female, 52 years old, moderately obese (her Body Mass Index is 35 where the normal is 19-25), and works for a local cookie packing company. Her job is to stand on a line where cookies are traveling down a conveyor belt after being baked and cooled. She reaches forwards with both arms and grasps the cookies, sometimes several at a time, and places them into plastic packaging which are then wrapped and finally removed from the belt and placed into boxes located at the end of the line. Each worker rotates positions every 30 minutes. A problem can occur when other workers fall behind or when there aren’t enough workers on the line, at which time the speed required to complete the job increases.
So now, let’s discuss the “pathology” behind CTS. The cause of CTS is the pinching of the median nerve inside the carpal tunnel, located on the palm side of the wrist. The tunnel is made up of 2 rows of 4 carpal bones that form top of the tunnel while a ligament stretches across, making up the tunnel’s floor. There are 9 tendons that travel through the tunnel and “during rush hour” (or when the worker is REALLY moving fast, trying to keep up with production), the friction created between the tendons, their sheaths (covering), and surrounding synovial lining (a lubricating membrane that covers the tendons sheaths) results in inflammation or swelling. When this happens, there just isn’t enough room inside the tunnel to accommodate the swelling and everything gets compressed. The inflamed contents inside the tunnel push the median nerve (that also travels through the tunnel) against the ligament and pinched nerve symptoms result (numbness, tingling, and loss of the grip strength). The worker notices significant problems at night when her hands interrupt her sleep and she has to shake and flick her fingers to try to get them to “wake up.” She notices that only the index to the 3rd and thumb half of the 4th finger are numb, primarily on the palm side.
At this stage, the worker often waits to see if this is just a temporary problem that will go away on its own and if not, she’ll make an appointment for a consultation, often at her family doctor (since many patients don’t realize chiropractic treatments REALLY HELP this condition). In an “ideal world,” the primary care doctor first refers the patient to the chiropractor for non-surgical management. Other treatment elements include the use of a night wrist splint, ice massage over the tunnel, and possibly modality treatments such as low level laser therapy and (one of the MOST IMPORTANT) “ergonomic management.” That means workstation modifications, which may include slowing down the line, the addition 1 or 2 workers, and reducing the reach requirement by adding a “rake” that pushes the cookies towards the worker/s, etc. Strict home instructions to allow for proper rest and managing home repetitive tasks are also very important. Between all these approaches, chiropractic is HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL in managing the CTS patient.
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