Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) conjures up images of office workers typing away at their desks, half of them wearing wrist braces. But CTS is increasingly common among children as well.
What is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
CTS is a restriction of nerve function affecting the median nerve, which runs through the wrist and controls parts of the thumb, index finger, and ring finger, along with the middle finger. Crucially, the median nerve runs through a small channel of bone in the wrist called the carpal tunnel. When repetitive tasks such as typing irritate the nerve and the tissues surrounding it, the nerve is pressed against the carpal tunnel’s rigid walls and squeezed until the messages it carries are interrupted. This leads to numbness, tingling, and pain in the hand.
Along with typing, playing drums or piano, and hammering nails can lead to CTS. While children have always enjoyed banging on things with hammers and drumsticks, and piano lessons have long been part of childhood, recent generations are the first to regularly type on keyboards at young ages. The widespread use of computers and tablets may not be solely responsible for the rise of CTS among children, but it may be the extra element that has turned a wide range of standard childhood activities into potential risk factors.
How to Prevent Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in Children
Because children grow so quickly, they may be at greater risk for developing early signs of CTS. That same factor, though, makes it easier to prevent CTS in children than in adults.
By far the most important preventive measure parents can take is to insist the children take regular breaks from keyboard activity. CTS develops so slowly that children may not be quick to identify its early signs, and computers can be engrossing, so parents should take it upon themselves to be sure that the conditions in which CTS develops never persist for long.
Along with regular breaks, parents can encourage good ergonomic habits in their children when using keyboards. Three steps can go a long way toward avoiding the complications of CTS:
- Arrange the child’s workspace appropriately. Children can be eager to emulate their parents, using mom’s chair or dad’s desk when typing on the computer. As cute as this may be, the wrong relationship between seating and keyboard height can cause children’s wrists to bend unnaturally while typing; this is the perfect environment for CTS. Parents should be sure that children are able to keep their wrists in line with their forearms while typing, and their hands no lower than their wrists.
- Move or tilt keyboards. Along with proper seating and workspace height, children may benefit from keyboards that are tilted toward them. Again, the goal is to encourage the proper alignment of wrists and hands.
- Focus on posture. Good posture is a virtue unto itself, but arched backs, drawn-up shoulders, and tense upper bodies can draw children’s wrists and hands out of proper alignment. Good typing posture isn’t anything special—avoid slouching, keep your back straight and your head back—but using a computer can tempt even a child with good posture into bad habits. Parents may find themselves reminding children regularly to mind their posture.
How to Treat Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in Children?
Since children may not register those early signs as readily as adults would, parents should be sure to ask plenty of questions during and after sessions at the keyboard. If children report tingling or numbness in their fingers, some simple early – treatment options usually do the trick.
Above all, children reporting CTS symptoms should immediately stop any activity that might worsen the issue. Ice packs applied to the inside of the wrist can quickly tamp down early swelling and give irritated nerves a chance to relax. After icing, it may be wise to send children to bed wearing wrist braces or splints, to ensure that the carpal tunnel remains completely open for a long stretch of time.
Surgery is rarely indicated for children experiencing early CTS, nor are anti-inflammatory medications often needed. Good habits, regular rest, and a bit of ice and immobilization are all most children need to achieve full recovery.