Repetitive motion syndrome is a fancy name for a simple problem which is affecting hundred of millions of us worldwide. It is caused by the chronic overuse of tendons and muscles in the body. Many different parts of the limbs can be affected, ranging from tennis or golfer’s elbow, to trigger finger, but a condition called “carpal tunnel syndrome” has long left me mystified
As a child, I remember my grandmother, who was a keen seamstress, complaining of numbness and tingling in her wrist and fingers. While she never did anything about it, she used to enjoy saying to her friends that she had Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Since she passed away many years ago, I will never know if her self diagnosis was accurate, but I have since discovered that it is a medical condition that is very often misdiagnosed, at great personal cost.
The median nerve of the forearm runs through a narrow passageway called the carpal tunnel in the middle of the wrist. It governs the function of the fingers.
Bound by bones and ligaments, the carpal tunnel protects a main nerve to the hand, and the nine tendons that bend the fingers.
When the covering of these tendons becomes enlarged, that nerve gets compressed causing pain, numbness and tingling in the fingers, and eventually hand weakness. The compression can be the consequence of a wrist fracture, or the result of inflammation build up from arthritis.
A wrist splint is the conventional treatment, together with anti inflammatory drugs, or cortisone injections, which alleviate the symptoms without resolving the problem.
Unfortunately, when the problem becomes chronic, and the person’s livelihood is affected, one can easily be persuaded that wrist surgery is the only remaining option. With our hands being such complex and delicate structures, there is always the potential risk of permanent damage. This can be a very expensive mistake, if it turns out that the original diagnosis was wrong, and the problem could easily have been treated in a different way. According to the American acupuncturist Sara Calabro, “Most people whose job causes, or worsens, wrist pain do not have carpal tunnel syndrome, but a repetitive strain of the arm and wrist muscles”.
In these cases, the trigger points in the strained muscle are replicating the symptoms of carpal tunnel, and they can be easily treated with a course of acupuncture.
Sometimes, the problem is caused by our poor posture. When we slouch at our computer, our shoulders curve inward, causing compression of the surrounding arteries, and the brachial plexus nerve network supplying the hands. This is also a frequent problem with painters, factory workers, and supermarket cashiers who have to perform repetitive motions with their wrist for long hours resulting in postural fatigue in their back and neck.
In most of these cases, acupuncture treatments can be very successful.
In our treatment approach, local points selected in the wrist and forearm are used to relieve the tension in the strained muscles, in combination with distal points in the shoulders, the upper chest above the clavicle and even the back. Since the meridians run bilaterally, when the local area on the affected side is too painful to needle, we often use the opposite side. In my clinic, I expect a marked improvement after three treatments, and a full recovery after five visits.
Obviously, to stop the problem reccurring, some lifestyle changes will have to be made. Since stress causes the body to stiffen, short of changing jobs there are many ways one can assist the body to perform better.
Research has shown that we are happier and perform better under stressful conditions when we are fitter, so it is very important to find a form of exercise that is practical and we can enjoy doing a couple of times a week.
I advise my patients to massage the painful areas with liniments like tiger balm. One can also use a lit herbal stick called “moxa” to promote the blood flow and remove the stagnation around the problem area.
A five minute stretching routine for the wrists, arms, shoulders and neck performed three times daily (total 15 minutes) during work breaks can have a huge impact on the muscle’s ability to recover from overwork.
While in some chronic cases of true carpal syndrome, hand surgery could be contemplated, it should always be the last resource. I would advise you to compare the potential risks with the benefits, taking into consideration the fact that no surgeon will ever guarantee that your problem will be totally solved after the procedure.
Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com