Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Overview

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a term used to refer to pressure on a nerve in the wrist called the median nerve. It is most common in people who are overweight and who perform manual tasks requiring firm grip. It is treatable, but it can take months to go away entirely. Between 7% and 16% of the UK population will experience carpal tunnel syndrome at some point in their lives.

What are the signs and symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by a swelling in the carpal tunnel (located in the wrist) which then puts pressure on the median nerve. Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include:

  • Aching and tenderness in fingers, hand or arm
  • Numb hands
  • Tingling or pins and needles
  • Hand or finger weakness and difficulty gripping and holding things.

Symptoms will come and go, often being the worst at nighttime. They will sometimes occur in conjunction with symptoms of a related condition such as arthritis or diabetes, or will develop after an injury to the wrist.

How is carpal tunnel syndrome treated?

Carpal tunnel syndrome can sometimes go away of its own accord, particularly if it has developed during pregnancy.

Other ways someone can treat their carpal tunnel syndrome at home include:

  • Wearing a wrist splint, particularly at night, for at least four weeks, to take the pressure off the affected nerve
  • Stop or modify activities which are causing or exacerbating the condition, such as using vibrating tools
  • Hand exercises
  • Painkillers to help manage the discomfort while it gets better

If self-treatment does not work, a GP can confirm a diagnosis with an ultrasound scan. They may then prescribe steroid injections to bring the carpal tunnel swelling down.

If this still does not work, surgery will usually cure carpal tunnel syndrome.

There are a few ways to confirm what sort of reasonable adjustments should be made for an employee with carpal tunnel syndrome:

An employer can ask questions regarding the nature of an employee’s carpal tunnel syndrome and what extra support they may need can be broached sensitively. For example:

  • Have they required adjustments in the past? For example, avoiding certain types of manual tasks which might exacerbate their symptoms.
  • Encouraging the employee to express their strengths and interests and which tasks they might enjoy doing is a positive way of adapting to their needs.
  • Employers should be aware of the risk factors for carpal tunnel syndrome in their workplace and encourage all employees to inform them of symptoms as soon as they start to develop.

What reasonable adjustments are possible for employees with carpal tunnel syndrome?

Employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees with carpal tunnel syndrome if they know, are aware of, or could ‘reasonably be expected to know’ that the employee has carpal tunnel syndrome. Most employees will tell their employer what reasonable adjustments they need. They often involve simple changes in the way an employer might usually do things.

If the employee does not disclose a health issue or disability which may affect their performance up front, an employer should broach the subject sensitively if they suspect that there may be a disability behind the employee’s reduced performance. Reasonable adjustments can then be made in accordance with the employee’s needs, including, in the case of carpal tunnel syndrome:

  • Flexible return-to-work policy to accommodate an employee who may need to take time off as a result of their carpal tunnel syndrome or its treatment.
  • Allowance for regular breaks to reduce the impact on the wrist if the work involves gripping objects, including time to break if the employee is taking pain medication for their condition which may affect their concentration, etc.
  • Adjustments to duties depending on the severity of their symptoms, which may be variable and improve or deteriorate from one week to the next. This may also be dependent on when they take their medication if they are required to operate machinery, for example.
  • Raising awareness so that colleagues understand the employee’s carpal tunnel syndrome and are aware of what they can do to avoid developing carpal tunnel syndrome themselves.
  • Ergonomic equipment to reduce pressure on the wrist while sitting at a desk, such as an adapted keyboard.

Carpal tunnel syndrome Signposting  

RSI Action – organisation working to prevent repetitive strain injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome, in the UK and to improve the treatment of those with the conditions, including in a work environment.

Versus Arthritis – charity campaigning for better policies to protect people with arthritis and related nerve and joint conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome, and to provide them with better healthcare, as well as campaigning to counter common misconceptions about the condition (0300 790 0400). 

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