As I'm typing this, I'm in a fair amount of pain. My left hand is in a brace, but it still throbs continuously, and I get relief only when I don't use my hand for a while or go to sleep. I'm one of the unlucky folks with a carpal tunnel diagnosis — according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, 3 percent of women develop the condition during their lives. But it seems I was doomed from the start: Carpal tunnel syndrome is three times more common in women than in men, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
I'm extra salty about this biological predisposition because I'm having carpal tunnel release surgery later this week. If you don't know what carpal tunnel syndrome is, consider yourself lucky. Basically, the median nerve runs through your hand and forearm and passes through the carpal tunnel, and it can become swollen due to overuse. Carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms include wrist pain, numbness, tingling and hand weakness. If you're diligent and the syndrome is treated early, you may be able to get short-term relief from a wrist brace and steroids. If you procrastinate to make a doctor's appointment (like I did) and the symptoms are severe, you could end up having to undergo surgery.
But back to women being more likely to develop carpal tunnel syndrome. The Mayo Clinic says that some women have naturally smaller carpal tunnels, which could also be the reason we face a higher risk. It's also a common pregnancy complication, and one study found that "median nerve function is impaired in virtually all pregnant women during the third trimester, even in the absence of symptoms." So how do you avoid carpal tunnel syndrome, even if you're more likely to develop it thanks to your sex? From the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
- Make sure your workspace is ergonomic, and make sure you have good posture while typing.
- Take a 10 minute break every hour to give your muscles a break.
- Make sure your wrists aren't unnecessarily tense.
- Stay warm when it's cold outside — carpal tunnel syndrome is more likely in cold weather.
- Learn carpal tunnel syndrome exercises and practice them several times a day.
If that's not fun enough, scientists aren't sure why women are more likely than men to develop this incredibly annoying (verging on debilitating) condition. "Although there is limited research on why this is the case," the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notes, "scientists have several ideas. It may be that the wrist bones are naturally smaller in most women, creating a tighter space through which the nerves and tendons must pass. Other researchers are looking at genetic links that make it more likely for women to have musculoskeletal injuries such as CTS. Women also deal with strong hormonal changes during pregnancy and menopause that make them more likely to suffer from CTS. Generally, women are at higher risk of CTS between the ages of 45 and 54. Then, the risk increases for both men and women as they age."
While women are more likely to get the condition, your profession also affects your chances of carpal tunnel syndrome. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shares some vocations that are more vulnerable to carpal tunnel syndrome. "People with certain types of jobs are more likely to have CTS, including manufacturing and assembly line workers, grocery store checkers, violinists, and carpenters. Some hobbies and sports that use repetitive hand movements can also cause CTS, such as golfing, knitting, and gardening." Interestingly, there's only a weak link between computer use and carpal tunnel syndrome — which is surprising, considering how much time I spend hunched over a keyboard.
Take it from me: carpal tunnel syndrome is the worst, and you should do everything you can to avoid it. Your wrist will thank you in the long run.