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Managing and Preventing Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Before It Interrupts Your Career

Jul 05, 2016

Author: Amber Metro-Sanchez

Preventing and managing carpal tunnel is essential for a long and healthy career as a dental hygienist, so here are some things you need to know to help protect yourself.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a concern for almost anyone in the dental field and is rather common among dental hygienists. One day you feel some tingling in your fingers, or maybe you've noticed it's hard to form a firm grip on your tools. You start to wonder if this is going to be an ongoing issue, and how can you fix it, as it makes your job more and more difficult.

According to the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 8.4 percent of dental hygienists develop this frustrating condition. Preventing and managing carpal tunnel is essential for a long and healthy career as a dental hygienist, so here are some things you need to know to help protect yourself.

What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

According to the National Institutes of Health, carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when your median nerve – the nerve that runs from your forearm to your palm – gets compressed at the wrist. This nerve controls the feelings to the palm-side of your thumb and every finger except the pinky (little finger), as well as impulses in the muscles that allow the thumb and fingers to move. However, when the surrounding tendons and nerves become irritated and inflamed, this compresses the median nerve, leading to carpal tunnel syndrome.

The condition develops slowly. At first, you may notice burning, tingling or itching numbness in the palm of the hand, thumb or first three fingers. You may start to lose dexterity in these areas as symptoms progress, which can result in decreased grip strength. Carpal tunnel syndrome can make even the smallest chairside motions, like gripping a scaler or a mirror handle, a challenge.

What Causes It?

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, the exact cause of carpal tunnel syndrome is hard to pinpoint, but certain health conditions can increase your risk. Dental hygienists who have diabetes, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis or hypothyroidism, as well as hygienists who are obese or pregnant, are at risk. And while your chairside work doesn't cause the condition directly, the repetitive motions of scaling along with the use of vibrating hand devices (such as a hygiene hand piece or ultrasonic scaler tip) also place dental hygienists at risk for carpal tunnel syndrome.

Prevention of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Thankfully, you can reduce your chances of developing carpal tunnel syndrome. First and foremost, it's important to not overwork your hands. Do your best to not bend your wrists while you work. If you adjust your patient's positioning in the chair, you can keep your wrists in a neutral position. Outside of the office, limit activities that may impact your wrists. For example, if you need to lift something heavy, be sure to use both hands so that you're not extending your wrists unnecessarily.

The type of equipment you work with also plays a part in the development of wrist issues. According to the Journal of the American Dental Association forceful pinching, as used during scaling, increases your risk. When working on a patient, it is best to use instruments that are lightweight and larger in diameter. Using a different technique may also help.

Regular exercises can reduce your risk of developing carpal tunnel, too. The University of Maryland Medical Center suggests different exercises for different areas of the hand and wrist:

  • Make a tight fist with one hand, then release and spread out your fingers. Repeat this five times for each hand.
  • Pull your thumb back and away from your palm for five seconds. Repeat this five to 10 times for each hand.
  • Keep your pointer and middle fingers extended, while the rest are down (like a peace sign). Then draw five clockwise circles with your raised fingers, then repeat in a counterclockwise motion. Repeat for the opposite hand.

Try each of these between patients, or every hour or so, to keep your wrists feeling loose and limber.

Treatment Options

According to The Ohio State University Medical Center, there are a few treatment options for carpal tunnel. Early intervention is best. When you begin to feel symptoms, first try taking an anti-inflammatory drug to relieve pain and swelling. You can also give your wrist a rest by wearing a splint to limit your range of motion.

If your symptoms persist, the next steps are more invasive. Initially, your doctor may suggest steroid injections, but if that proves ineffective, your doctor may recommend a surgery that snips a ligament in the carpal tunnel in an effort to relieve pressure. Unfortunately, this comes with three to four months of recovery time and may not relieve all of your symptoms, so it's often reserved for only the most extreme cases of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Hand and wrist issues are roadblocks that no dental hygienist wants to encounter. By being aware of carpal tunnel syndrome, you may be able to take action to help prevent it. If you do develop carpal tunnel syndrome, by managing its impact you will be able to minimize its effects on your life. Exercise and prevention measures will keep you at your best for a long dental career that is as pain-free as possible.


  • Carpal tunnel can start out gradually with feelings of numbness and tingling in the palm of the hand or fingers.
  • Hand and wrist exercises can help prevent the condition.
  • People with certain medical conditions are more likely to develop carpal tunnel.

Why It's Valuable

Musculoskeletal disorders are a concern for dental hygienists, and in order to have a long dental career, professionals must be proactive about protecting their bodies.

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