Examples of Cumulative Trauma Disorder

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Doctor holding a patient's handNo matter the field of work, be it at a desk or a construction site, the body needs rest to repair the damage done from daily labor. Without rest to repair the “micro-traumas” that occur in daily repetitive activity, a cumulative trauma disorder may develop. Cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs) are musculoskeletal disorders that form due to work-related activities wearing on the body. The musculoskeletal system is comprised of joints, tendons, nerves, ligaments and muscles; all of which can be damaged by seemingly harmless repetitive motions over long periods of time.

CTDs are a major occupational issue in the U.S., affecting at least three percent of the adult population according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Their affect and development increase with age and can become permanent if left unchecked. They are usually the result of a combination of variables that are exacerbated by lack of recovery time. Factors such as physical repetition and exertion, unnatural postures, idleness, compression, rapid movements, vibration and mental pressure may eventually become a CTD.

Occupations including office workers, assemblers, packers, sewers, housekeepers and constructions workers are especially susceptible to CTDs due to the repetitive motions associated with their work. Without preventative measures, workers may start to notice swelling and pain in CTD-prone areas. There are a multiple types of CTDs, though their symptoms and solutions are generally similar if not the same.

Tendon Disorders

Some of the most common CTDs are disorders involving the tendons. Tendons are fibrous tissues that link muscles and bones together, and micro-traumas from use are generally healed quickly by the body. If overuse continues for a prolonged period without time to rest and repair, the tears in the tendons become more serious.

Tenosynovitis is a type of tendon CTD caused by inflammation in the protective sheath surrounding the tendon. It can affect areas prone to overuse commonly joints, hands and feet. Workers who begin to feel symptoms including difficulty in joint movement, swelling and pain in those areas may be developing tenosynovitis.

Another CTD of the tendon are ganglionic cysts. Fluid bubbles up in the wrist creating cysts underneath the skin caused by stress. Typing is one activity that can cause ganglionic cysts. These cysts usually appear with no pain.

De Quervain’s Disease is yet another example of a CTD. This disease affects the tendons around the thumb specifically and can potentially travel up the forearm. Like the other tendon CTDs, it’s caused by repetitive hand and wrist motion causing inflammation to the protective tendon sheath. Also similar to the other disorders, symptoms can include pain, swelling or sensitivity near the base of the thumb.

Nerve Disorders

CTDs not only affect the tendons, they damage nerves as well. Pressure from hard edges on work surfaces and tools during repetitive activities can create damaging nerve disorders.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is a common nerve CTD that can lead to permanent loss of hand function if left untreated. Intermittent and repetitive compression of the median nerve with the wrist’s carpal tunnel from activities such as typing, assembly work, or packaging can lead to this syndrome. Symptoms may include numbness or burning in the hand’s first three and a half digits and, as stated earlier, it can progress to more severe consequences.

Another nerve-specific disorder is Raynaud’s Syndrome. It is also known as “vibration white finger” and “hand-arm vibration syndrome.” This is caused by the continued use of vibrating tools. It results in numbness in the fingers as well as pale skin and may lead to a loss of muscle control along the hands. Raynaud’s Syndrome is more likely to appear if the vibrating tools are used in cold temperatures but, like all CTDs, can be prevented through a few simple steps.

Prevention and Solutions

Fortunately CTDs are preventable and, if they become a prominent issue, can be repaired. Solutions are almost never surgical and usually include stabilization of the affected area, anti-inflammatory drugs, physical therapy, cold packs and targeted exercises. The best solution however, is to prevent CTDs from appearing at all.

Prevention methods seem simpler than they are, mostly because they involve making a proactive change in work habits. For one, a healthy and strong posture can help the body ward off CTDs. Posture is important for the entire body and slouching or awkward positions stresses it. Improving workplace ergonomics is another prevention method that handles the comfortability and design of the work furniture and tools. Better ergonomics will help the body heal and minimize micro-traumas.

Finally, rest and relaxation is a major CTD preventative. It is a chance for the body to heal which is important since overuse is the biggest exaggerator and creator of CTDs. Workplace activities may seem benign, but they can cause pain and difficulty over time without proper awareness and proactive steps. These disorders need to be taken seriously before they can become permanent.

Occupational Safety and Health Specialist Welcome

Cumulative trauma disorders can be painful and sometimes irreversible. People who are interested in creating better workspace environments that are beneficial to worker’s physical health can become occupational health  and safety specialists (OHSS). OHSSs can specialize and become occupational hygienists and ergonomists; job titles that work specifically in preventing injury and damage to those within the workspace. Cumulative trauma disorders affect not only people, but workplace productivity, and it is health and safety professionals’ responsibility to keep productivity up and people healthy.

Learn More

Learn to identify and analyze potential workplace hazards, infractions and risks through a bachelor of science in occupational safety online. At Eastern Kentucky University, you will gain a graduate-level education by industry-experienced educators and fire and safety professionals who are committed to teaching and preparing you for continued success.

Recommended Readings

The Current State of Workplace Safety in the U.S.

10 U.S. Labor Laws Protecting the Rights of Workers

Preventing Respiratory Diseases in the Workplace



Cumulative Trauma Disorder


De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis