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Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: A Concern for Tech-Savvy Youth?

DENTON, Texas — It is not uncommon to see children using desk computers, hand-held electronics such as smart phones, and video gaming controls on a daily basis. The exploding popularity of video game systems and computer usage may be putting children at a greater risk of developing repetitive strain injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS).

The carpal tunnel is the narrow passageway of ligament and bones in the wrist that houses the median nerve and tendons. The median nerve runs from the arm to the hand and, when it becomes pressed or squeezed, a tingly feeling or numbness may occur in the hand. Repetitive movements, such as typing on a computer or playing a video game or musical instrument for a long period of time, can cause the tendons in the carpal tunnel to swell and pinch the median nerve, causing CTS.

Although CTS typically affects individuals age 30 and older, physicians are reporting complaints of CTS symptoms from younger individuals. Symptoms most commonly associated with CTS include, burning, tingling or numbness in the palm of the hand and fingers. Symptoms are most often noted in the thumb, index finger and two middle fingers, and may include loss of strength or coordination in the hands.

Children and teenagers are spending hours at the computer every day, putting strain on their wrists and hands that formerly was only seen in adults. Both groups should follow these tips to avoid repetitive stress injuries:

  • Use a chair that can be adjusted for your height to avoid bending your wrists to type. For children, it may be wise to purchase special furniture, a special computer "mouse" and keyboard designed for smaller bodies and hands.
  • Place the keyboard at a level slightly lower than normal desk height.
  • While typing, keep your forearms and wrists straight. Your wrists should not be bent up, down or to the side.
  • Use a footrest to keep legs from dangling.
  • Make sure the monitor is at the correct height. While looking straight ahead, your eyes should be level with the top of the monitor.
  • When using hand-held gaming devices, put a pillow in your lap and rest arms on the pillow.
  • Make sure to take frequent breaks from repetitive tasks to give your body a rest.

If you or your child experience symptoms associated with CTS, please visit your physician to help prevent permanent damage to the median nerve.

"Research has shown that children and adolescents spend on average four hours a day in front of the television and an additional two hours a day in front of the computer screen. This time in front of the computer does not include computer screen time necessary for school work," said Jeremy S. Baker, M.D., a pediatrician on the medical staff at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Denton. "While these tips are important for computer use, we should also focus on limiting screen time for game playing and modifying our children's exposure to on-line activities that will put them at risk for repetitive stress injuries."

Other activities and risk factors may also contribute to CTS, such as:

  • Intensive racquet sports, such as tennis
  • Gymnastics
  • Trauma, such as breaks or sprains in the wrist that may cause swelling in the carpal tunnel
  • Diabetes
  • Arthritis
  • Thyroid problems

Mild cases of CTS are usually treated with the use of a brace or splint. These are typically worn at night to prevent the wrist from bending, which opens the carpal tunnel so the median nerve has as much room as possible. Allowing the wrist to rest may help the swollen tendons to shrink. Over-the-counter medications, such as Ibuprofen, may also help the swelling subside.

In more severe cases, a physician may recommend a cortisone shot or injection to help reduce inflammation in the carpal tunnel. If neither of these treatments help, surgery may be suggested to help relieve the pressure on the median nerve. It is normally an outpatient procedure that takes less than an hour.

Fortunately, very few people are permanently injured by CTS and symptoms generally improve with proper exercises and treatment. Preventative measures are the key to keeping symptoms from surfacing or returning.

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