Carpal Tunnel Disability and Workers’ Compensation Benefits

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a nerve disorder of the wrist. It’s common in office workers and employees whose jobs involve repetitive hand motions.

The carpal tunnel is a small passageway in the wrist lined by several fine bones. A ligament called the transverse carpal ligament arches over the bones and protects the median nerve. The median nerve is the primary nerve extending down into the thumb, index and middle fingers, and half of the ring finger.

Causes of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

When the wrist, fingers, or hand is constantly used for repetitive motions such as twisting, abnormal bending, or persistent striking, the ligament can become strained and press against the median nerve. Compression of the median nerve causes pain and discomfort in the hand and fingers.

Common symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include acute or chronic pain, tingling, numbness, burning, or prickling sensations. Affected workers may have difficulty gripping, holding tools, using a computer mouse, typing, or other similar tasks. Occupations most commonly associated with carpal tunnel syndrome are:

  • Computer/data entry workers
  • Factory assembly line workers
  • Professional drivers, including truck and bus drivers
  • Musicians
  • Craftsmen
  • Chefs

Workers’ Compensation and Carpal Tunnel Disability

Carpal tunnel is recognized as a legitimate on-the-job injury. Workers affected by carpal tunnel syndrome have a right to make a workers’ compensation claim. Workers’ comp benefits generally include reimbursement for medical and therapy bills, out-of-pocket expenses (medications, splints, etc.), and two-thirds of lost wages.

Unlike many on-the-job injuries that are quickly apparent, carpal tunnel syndrome is a progressive injury and can take months, even years, before any symptoms appear. If you experience symptoms and want to seek medical care, you must notify your employer as soon as possible after the onset of your symptoms.

The workers’ compensation process begins when you complete a “first report of injury” form. The form has several questions concerning the date, time, and nature of your injury. With carpal tunnel syndrome, you need to give an approximate date when you first started noticing your symptoms.

Once you’ve reported your injury, your employer or workers’ comp representative will give you a list of company-approved physicians. You choose one to be your primary treating physician. Your physician may be able to diagnose and treat your carpal tunnel disability after a physical examination, or he may refer you to a specialist, such as an orthopedist, rheumatologist, neurologist, or osteopath.

An electromyogram (EMG) nerve conduction study is a diagnostic tool frequently used to identify carpal tunnel syndrome. It measures the response time of muscles from a series of quick electrical pulses given to the nerve. The study is conducted by attaching several metal electrodes to the skin with tape, and a shock-emitting electrode placed directly over the nerve. This painless test may take 15 minutes to an hour.

Treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome includes wearing a hand splint to prevent the wrist from twisting and bending, drug therapy to reduce inflammation (ibuprofen and naproxen) and reduce swelling (corticosteroids), and in the most serious cases, endoscopic surgery on the ligament around the median nerve.

At some point during treatment, your physician will determine when you’ve reached a level of maximum medical improvement (MMI). This is when further treatment will not improve your condition. Your physician bases MMI on his findings and the prognoses of your other treating physicians. When you reach MMI, your physician issues a return to work form that states whether or not you can return to your former job.

If your carpal tunnel is diagnosed as a temporary total disability, you may be able to resume your former job duties, but only after additional time for healing. In the interim, your physician may clear you to work at another job that accommodates your disability.

If your physician believes you have lasting, debilitating damage from your carpal tunnel disability, you may be diagnosed with a permanent partial disability. This means you can’t return to your previous job, or any other job which requires the use of your wrist, hand, or other affected areas.

With a permanent partial disability, you should receive a lump sum settlement from workers’ compensation in addition to payments for your medical and therapy bills, out-of-pocket expenses, and lost wages. The amount of the lump sum award is set by your state’s workers’ comp administration.

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