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Carpal tunnel syndrome in women

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a women's disorder

What is carpal tunnel syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome in women is a huge medical problem. And it seems like more and more women are getting it.

Carpal tunnel syndrome (or just “carpal tunnel”) is a type of nerve problem. The problem begins inside a narrow space in the wrist joint called the carpal tunnel. Actually, that’s where the condition gets its name. For reasons not completely understood, the tendons in this space begin to swell. When they do, they push against the median nerve, ultimately crushing it.

It’s that crushing that causes all the symptoms and signs of carpal tunnel syndrome. These include numbness, pain or tingling in the hand and fingers. It may also feel like there’s burning or soreness in the hand. Some people feel clumsiness when picking up small objects like coins. It may be hard to do simple manual things like grasp a doorknob or tie a shoelace.

Gender-specific disorders

When doctors use the term “disorders of women” it doesn’t exclude men from having the ailment. It just suggests women are far more likely to have it. Some of the more common examples are bulimia, fibromyalgia, pelvic dysfunctions, osteoporosis , and certain autoimmune diseases.

More and more, doctors are coming to believe that carpal tunnel is also a women’s disorder. That may sound silly because you probably know plenty of men who have it.

But in fact, women are far more prone to getting carpal tunnel. In other words, statistical bias underestimates how much women are prone to carpal tunnel syndrome. Hard data and solid reasoning support this idea.

Connecting the dots

Connecting the dots to carpal tunnel being a true women’s disorder is relatively simple when you consider the facts. Your conclusion will certainly be that carpal tunnel syndrome in women is underestimated.

Repetitive stress doesn’t “cause” carpal tunnel

It’s important to know that carpal tunnel syndrome is not “caused” by repetitively stressing your hand. Rather, if you’re predisposed to getting carpal tunnel, doing repetitive tasks will likely bring on symptoms. It’s similar to what happens with diabetes. Eating poorly and gaining weight doesn’t cause diabetes. But if you’re predisposed to diabetes (like having a family history) then poor lifestyle habits will probably make symptoms appear.

High risk industries

Some industries require extensive manual labor. Many of those also have the highest incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome. Again, the manual labor doesn’t cause the condition; it just forces carpal tunnel to appear (where it otherwise wouldn’t) in those already predisposed to it.

“Reported” incidence of carpal tunnel

The latest surveys show women are 3-5 times more likely to have carpal tunnel than men. But these estimates of the incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome in women are a result of poor data sampling. Specifically, it does not account for sampling bias.

For instance, it’s like saying “men are more prone to accidental finger amputation”. Well, more men than women DO amputate their fingers. But that’s because more men work in jobs using high speed cutting tools. Yet they’re not more prone to accidents, because accidents are not gender specific.

Men versus women in the workforce

Women represent slightly less than half of the US workforce. But men perform over 90% of the manual labor (“blue collar” work) in the workforce. Manual labor means any work performed mostly by hand.

So when we adjust for the fact that women are 9 times less exposed to manual labor as men, the results are very different. It means the prevalence of carpal tunnel syndrome in women is actually about 30 times higher than in men. By any description, this is predominantly a disorder in women.

Why is calling it a “female disorder” important?

This above discussion obviously omitted the fact that up to 70% of pregnant women will experience carpal tunnel syndrome. In itself, this staggering statistic should compel doctors to re-classify the disorder. But let’s not get sidetracked.

Concluding that carpal tunnel syndrome is a women’s disorder will affect how doctors deliver treatment. Specifically, a woman in pain from carpal tunnel will likely see relief faster from a provider.

Currently, for women in pain, there are disparities in how doctors treat them compared to men.  For instance, if you’re a woman with pain, doctors are far more likely to prescribe a sedative than an analgesic (for pain). You’re also more likely to wait longer for pain medicines after surgery. Most egregiously, you will likely wait longer than men in the ER to get pain medications.

When doctors recognize carpal tunnel syndrome in women as a genuine female disorder, these disparities will lessen. Pain is difficult enough. When doctors understand that a woman’s hand pain is a genuine concern, it will only help the treatment process and ease the suffering.

Summary:

Carpal tunnel syndrome in women fits the definition of a “women’s disorder”. When sampling data are normalized for occupations, women are about 30 times more prone to this condition than men. Classifying it as a legitimate female disorder will help patients get the help they need more effectively.

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