Research shows a big cause of work-related nerve injuries

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Many jobs can strain and even harm your nerves without you realizing it. Dr. Sandra Hearn and her team wanted to learn more about why work-related nerve injuries happen.

Dr. Hearn is the associate chair of Education and Professional Development in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

So, what is a work-related nerve injury? It’s a problem with your peripheral nerves caused by something you do at work.

This kind of injury is common in jobs that involve a lot of physical work. Dr. Hearn and her team looked at injuries that happen slowly over time because of repetitive motions.

“Some injuries are sudden, like when someone gets their limb crushed in a machine or has a car accident at work,” Dr. Hearn explained. “But we focused on injuries that happen in a more predictable way, where nerves get damaged over time due to repeated stress.”

Dr. Hearn and her team found that nerve injuries often happen because of repeated trauma. This trauma can come from various actions that put stress on the nerves in different parts of the body.

These actions include compression, stretching, vibration, and repeated or high-force movements involving muscles and joints.

Their research showed that manual labor workers are most at risk for these types of injuries. Jobs that involve repetitive movements with a lot of force, like lifting heavy objects, heavy hammering, and constant squatting, are particularly dangerous.

While some injuries happen suddenly and have a clear starting point, others develop slowly over time due to ongoing repetitive motions.

“Many of these injuries build up over time, without a clear moment of injury,” said Dr. Hearn. “For example, someone who has used a jackhammer for years might start waking up with numb hands.”

One surprising finding was that specific anatomical differences can make some people more likely to get nerve injuries. “Where a common cause exists, anatomical differences can explain why some workers have nerve problems while others do not,” Dr. Hearn noted.

“The chance of getting injured depends on how each person’s nerves respond to repetitive tasks.”

Each work-related nerve injury is different. Dr. Hearn and her team aimed to find the best way to approach these common injuries to create a useful reference guide for treating many patients.

“We know that jobs and their specific tasks are very diverse today. It’s impossible to list all job tasks and their associated nerve injuries,” Dr. Hearn said. Their goal now is to help doctors recognize how work tasks might interact with anatomy to cause nerve damage.

“This knowledge can help even when patients describe job tasks that are different from those in our review. It gives the medical community ways to diagnose and treat work-related nerve injuries,” Dr. Hearn explained.

In addition to Dr. Hearn, other authors of the study include Dr. Shawn P. Jorgensen, Dr. Joelle M. Gabet, and Dr. Gregory T. Carter.

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The research findings can be found in Muscle and Nerve.

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