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Can technology cause carpal tunnel syndrome?

An elderly woman shows a female nurse her wrist pain. Ashley Burlage, MD, says that technology  is not the root of the musculoskeletal condition, but it can flare symptoms.

Playing video games or using your phone is not the root of the musculoskeletal condition, but it can flare symptoms. Here’s what you can do to find relief

During the Boston Red Sox’s World Series run in 2018, star left-handed pitcher David Price took some time off to alleviate pain caused by carpal tunnel syndrome. He blamed the condition on playing an exorbitant amount of hours of Fortnite — an online video game with more than 250 million users worldwide.

Twenty-six-year-old YouTube and Instagram sensation Gabbie Hanna, who has more than 6.5 million followers, had a similar experience. She recently announced that she is suffering from carpal tunnel from using her smartphone too much.

Is this possible? Sure is.

However, using technology isn’t the root of the issue.

Carpal tunnel’s symptoms of pain, tingling, weakness or numbness in your hand or wrist is caused by compression of the median nerve. For most, the pain worsens over time. So, any repetitive motion, including constant use of your phone, tablet or logging long hours playing video games, can cause a flare up of symptoms if you don’t take breaks.

If the pain becomes unbearable, you do have choices.

Rest is best

Carpal tunnel syndrome is an issue for more than three million Americans. And it’s a big issue.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2014 that the condition was tied for first among nonfatal illnesses and injuries that caused people to be out from work. The median amount of time off was 32 days.

Generally, older people suffer from carpal tunnel, but anyone can be diagnosed. Pregnant women are very susceptible because of hormonal changes that cause swelling that increases pressure on the tendons.

Rest is the first step in helping to relieve this pain. A recent study using rats found that rest was just as effective as an experimental drug at reducing discomfort and regaining function after injuries caused by repeated moderate-strain activity, such as carpal tunnel and other common musculoskeletal disorders (tendinitis, tendinosis and low back pain).

Other options

Early diagnosis is integral to effectively treating carpal tunnel. Additional non-medical approaches include:

  • Wearing a splint: This can help relieve symptoms, but is not a long-term solution. You don’t want to wear the splint forever. If the pressure persists, it can lead to nerve damage and symptoms may worsen.
  • Minimizing activity: This too is not a long-term solution, especially for those who live active lifestyles or are locked into the activity that causes symptoms to flare.
  • Cortisone shots: These periodic injections can relieve the pain, but will not fix the overlying issue of the compressed nerve.

Avoid waiting too long if pain or other symptoms persist. If so, surgery may be the best option to elude nerve damage.

Release surgery

When non-medical means fail, carpal tunnel release surgery is the premier procedure to remedy the condition.

The 10-minute outpatient procedure is done under light anesthesia and can be done open or endoscopically. Either way, the surgery detaches the transverse carpal ligament that presses on the median nerve.

I prefer the limited open approach, which makes a smaller incision (two centimeters) than the traditional carpal tunnel release, allowing for expedited recovery.

Relief can happen for people who undergo release surgery immediately or within a few weeks. They have two weeks of light activity with their fingers completely free. Most don’t need physical therapy unless they are struggling with stiffness.

An orthopedic surgeon with Northwell’s Orthopaedic Institute, Ashley Burlage, MD, specializes in injuries of the elbow, hand, shoulder and wrist. She is also an assistant professor at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell and the Hofstra Northwell School of Graduate Nursing and Physician Assistant Studies.

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