Don't Let This Office Injury Ruin Your Life

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
If you spend your days hunched over a computer, you've no doubt gone home with the occasional tension headache, stiff neck, or bout of dry eyes. But, if all that clicking and typing has you worried you're at risk for carpal tunnel syndrome, you may be surprised to hear that only 2 to 3% of adults are diagnosed with the disorder. It's carpal tunnel's lesser-known but just as debilitating cousin you should be concerned about.
Called cubital tunnel syndrome, it affects the ulnar nerve, found near your elbow. (Carpal tunnel, meanwhile, affects the hand and wrist.) It's most often caused by repetitive bending motions or leaning on your elbows, which can irritate or compress the nerve. Virtually everyone with an office job is prone to these motions (especially the, ahem, desk-slouchers), making cubital tunnel syndrome one of the most common office injuries. You may feel the uncomfortable symptoms (pain, tingling, and weakness) all the way from shoulders to fingertips, and as with many nerve injuries, they can morph into chronic pain if left untreated.
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We asked occupational therapist Bari Turetzky, OTR/L, to give us the rundown on this stealthy office injury and to share advice on how we can all stay pain-free.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Causes & Symptoms
"The incidence of cubital tunnel syndrome is much higher in individuals who work for long periods with elbows bent or with pressure applied to the elbow region," says Turetzky. Think: typing, custodial work, or scanning items at a checkout. It can also be caused by sleeping with your arm under the pillow, resting your arms on the steering wheel, or leaning on your elbow while talking on the phone.
Keep an eye out for these common symptoms:
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- Finger tingles, particularly in the pinky or ring finger.
- Pain or numbness in the elbow or forearm.
- Weakness in the hands, particularly when pinching.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Treatment
First, check in with your doctor — and don't procrastinate making the appointment. "Cubital tunnel syndrome has an overwhelmingly positive prognosis, but it can lead to severe disability if not treated properly and in a timely manner," Turetzky warns. Your physician will conduct tests to look for nerve damage, but the odds are good your case will be easily treatable if you get checked out at the first sign of symptoms. Advanced cases may require surgery; basic treatment for minor cases typically includes:
- Anti-inflammatory medication, like ibuprofen (or corticosteroid injections if there's lots of pain or swelling).
- Nerve gliding exercises (hand and arm gestures that encourage the injured nerve to move normally with your joints).
- Elbow braces for day or night, depending on the cause of your case.
- Rest! Find a way to not repeat those repetitive-stress motions. For example, you may try using headphones for phone calls or adjusting your desk setup so as not to lean on your elbows.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Prevention
Mabel, Mabel, strong and able, keep your elbows off the table. "In general," says Turetzky, "it's best to avoid any activity that requires keeping your elbows bent for long periods of time." And, at the very least, be sure to care for those joints: "Just as runners must stretch before and after runs, anyone who uses their hands and arms for extended periods of time should stretch to avoid injury," Turetzky adds. You might also suggest an ergonomic evaluation to your HR department (after all, workplace injuries hurt the company, too). Here are some more basic ways to avoid cubital tunnel syndrome:
- Pull your keyboard closer so your elbows don't sit on the desk while you're typing.
- Use ergonomic pads on your desktop.
- Each day, do some basic upper-body stretches for your neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, and fingers.
- If your sleeping position is the culprit, Turetzky suggests wrapping a towel around your elbow or using a comfortable sleep splint.
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