Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS), the most common repetitive-stress injury, is a manifestation of nerve and tissue damage from fast, forceful and seemingly harmless repetitive wrist and hand motions. Repetitive movements can cause inflammation of the tendons that pass through a narrow tunnel in the wrist called the Carpal Tunnel. Those tendons enable the hand to open and close. The median nerve that also passes through the Carpal Tunnel carries impulses from the brain to the fingers. Inflamed tissue in the Carpal Tunnel can squeeze the median nerve, cause significant swelling and debilitating pain.
Injury often occurs in production and manufacturing workplaces. Common repetitive activities include cutting meat, dressing poultry and assembling automobiles. People developed CTS from using IBM computer keyboards. They sued the company. (Computer manufacturers now use warning labels to alert consumers that keyboard use may increase the risk of CTS.)
At the onset of CTS, an affected person feels a shooting pain in the shoulders, and tenderness, swelling, tingling and burning in the fingers and hands. As CTS progresses, these sensations may become so acute and persistent that an afflicted person no longer can perform the simplest of tasks, such as grasping objects. The longer the swelling compresses or pinches the median nerve, the greater the chance that some of the nerve cells will die. When enough nerve cells die, hand muscles deteriorate and lose their ability to grip. CTS sufferers may become permanently disabled if they ignore the symptoms.
Non-surgical treatments for CTS include immobilization, cold and hot therapy, aspirin, cortisone, infrared heat ultrasound, electrical stimulation, paraffin baths, various types of physical therapy, and anti-inflammatory drugs. In the most severe cases, surgery is performed to enlarge the Carpal Tunnel and repair ligaments. Statistics from the National Center for Health indicate that 2.4 million visits were made to physicians in 1999 because of CTS, of which 1 million were made to orthopedic surgeons.
According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS), approximately 366,000 CTS surgeries were performed in 1999, a 300% increase from 1991. However, both surgical and non-surgical treatments generally have not enabled CTS sufferers to return to work. At General Motors, about 1% of workers who undergo invasive CTS surgery permanently return to their previous jobs. As a result, CTS costs GM an estimated $250 million per year, including worker compensation payments.
Because current therapies produce limited success, CTS frequently causes temporary or permanent disability, imposing substantial costs on employers. In 1984, the AAOS estimated that the economic costs of repetitive-stress injuries to American industry amounted to more than $27 billion per year, principally in the form of wages, workers’ compensation, medical expenses and decreased productivity, not to mention higher insurance premiums.
Although the rate of repetitive stress injury varies significantly by industry, it generally has increased over the years. The incidence of repetitive stress disorders grew in many ways over the last decade as a result of many factors, including informed reporting and better diagnosis. In 1981, 18% of all workforce illness was from repetitive stress injuries, and by 1989 they accounted for 52% of all work-related injuries. In November 1990, Secretary of Labor Dole announced OSHA’s settlement with General Motors in the combat of repetitive stress injury. She called that injury “one of the nation’s greatest worker health and safety concerns in the decade of the 1990s.” Little has changed since that time.
MicroLight Corporation of America expects that its ML 830® will make significant contributions toward worker welfare as well as in reducing the financial burden on American industry, both in terms of medical costs, lost time and productivity.