Most of us don’t take very good care of ourselves. We work long hours massaging clients’ hands and feet, and filing, sculpturing, and polishing nails without scheduling periodic breaks.

We perform the same repetitive motions day after day, squeezing our fingers around nail files and other implements, twisting our bodies into awkward positions, ignoring the periodic tingling, numbing sensations in our hands and wrists that warn us to slow down and change our work habits.

“I had problems with my hands for about five years,” says Estelina, a former nail technician and owner of Estelina’s Slipaway, a pedicure product company in Westlake Village, Calif. “But I ignored the numbness and pain and kept working because I had to earn a living. I pushed and pushed until the pain was so bad, I could no longer work as a manicurist.”

When Estelina finally visited her doctor, she learned she had developed carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), a common health hazard afflicting nail technicians that is caused by a pinching or compression of the median nerve within the wrist. “I had heard of CTS,” Estelina says, “but I thought it was something that happened to other people — not me.”

Estelina fits the common profile of a manicurist doomed to develop CTS. For almost 13 years, she worked 10 hours a day or more, six and seven days a week, with clients scheduled every half-hour. “I always worked very fast,” Estelina admits, “and I tended to squeeze my clients’ hands to keep them steady. That’s probably why I had to have surgery on my left hand, even though I’m right-handed.”

Surgery was the only solution for Estelina after years of overuse, abuse, and neglect of her hands’ condition. Her hands became so weak she could no longer massage clients’ hands or grip her nail implements. Constant pain woke her up at night and persisted, despite the anti-inflammatory drugs, supportive wrist brace, and other treatments her doctor prescribed. “After surgery I could have started working again as a manicurist,” she says, “but one of the reasons I created my own pedicure product company was that it didn’t require the same repetitive motions. Occasionally I do nails or punch keys on the computer, but I don’t have to use my hands all the time. Now I think that maybe, if I had taken more frequent breaks ... if I’d tried to work slower instead of overdoing it ... if I hadn’t sat the wrong way, twisted my hands when I worked, or ignored what was happening to me, I could have done something to prevent CTS.”

No one knows exactly why one nail technician falls victim to CTS while another doesn’t, but experts do agree that just as preventive measures such as low-fat, healthier diets can reduce die risk of heart disease, preventive measures can be taken to help reduce the risk of CTS

Analyze Your Work Area

Try this experiment.

Sit down at your workstation and pretend you’re working on a client. If you’re not at work, visualize yourself at your station servicing a client. Is your chair really comfortable? Are your feet flat on the floor? Is your back straight and well-supported? Or are you hunched over? Your legs crossed or bent?

What about your workstation? Is it the right height for you? Or are your legs squeezed underneath? Do you have to sit sidesaddle to be comfortable? Are your arms straining, stretching your ligaments as if they we’re tally? Are your forearms banging against the table?

What about the rest of your work area? Is it situated properly so that you’re able to hold your client’s hands loosely and keep your wrists in a neutral position when filing? Or do the physical constraints of your workstation forces you to lean over and twist your body like a Cumby doll?

Do you have adequate lighting that’s positioned correctly? Or do you find yourself pulling or reaching in order to see better?

If you’re like many busy nail technicians you’ll find that a truthful analysis of your physical work area will reveal some of the sources of your physical problems. You’ll discover that you do lean forward unnecessarily, bend your neck forward like a swan, or sit with your legs to the side or folded beneath you.[PAGEBREAK]

Many of these problems can easily be solved by taking the time to make minor adjustments to your work area. Raising or lowering your chair can prevent you from holding your arms in an awkward position. Repositioning your workstation can give you more room to work comfortably. Adding a table lamp can stop you from folding your body in half to avoid distracting shadows or glare.

If more drastic changes are required, you need to consider getting a new chair or workstation better suited to your needs. If the furniture was purchased for the technician before you who was five feet eight inches, for example, and you measure in at four feet six, don’t hesitate to make the changes necessary for your comfort.

Your chair should also be adjustable so that you can position it at a height where your feet are flat on the floor in front of you with your elbows resting comfortably on the top of your workable.

Workstations should also be the right height so you can service clients without stretching your arms or straining your back, Edges should be smooth, without sharp protrusions that knock, scrape, or bruise arms or wrists.

While so much of this is common sense, it’s amazing how most of us will ignore the fact that we are too big or too small for our work area. It’s amazing how many of us will try to fit into our work area instead of redesigning it to suit our needs.

When shopping for a new chair or workstation, keep in mind that manufacturers are constantly creating new products to maximize nail technicians’ comfort. Many chair manufacturers offer ergonomically correct designs that can help eliminate some of the symptoms associated with CTS.

Furnishings manufacturers, too, have improved their nail stations and offer ones to suit nail technicians of every size and shape. If you can’t find one that suits you, most manufacturers will custom-build to your specifications.

Many companies have products specifically designed to prevent and alleviate symptoms of CTS. A number of cushioned armrests in various shapes and designs are available for nail technicians who need extra support for their arms and wrists, for example. Implements can be found in a variety of sizes for any size hand. Still other manufacturers, aware that squeezing and other forceful actions can exacerbate CTS, are developing nippers and other tools that allow technicians to work without having to put constant pressure on the muscles and tendons in their fingers and hands.

You’ll be surprised at how simple adjustments such as using the right tools and sitting in a properly lilted chair can help prevent many of the symptoms associated with CTS.

Analyze Your Work Habits

Once you’ve eliminated problems in your physical work area, take a good look at the work habits you’ve developed that contribute to your pain.

You may have the best-designee I chair in the world, but if you sit in it with your legs crossed instead of flat on the floor, you’re negating the chair’s purpose.

To pinpoint problematic habits, make a note of the way you perform each nail service. Jot down every repetitive motion such as filing, massaging, polishing, and sculpting; conduct a careful analysis of the way you perform each one. Record any awkward positions, any motions that require you to use added force or direct pressure.

For example, Estelina was aware that she put undue pressure on her hands and wrists when she worked fast. Other technicians admit their lingers pinch or squeeze their files forcefully, a motion that could contribute to CTS if performed on a daily basis, year after year.

But knowing you have a problem and doing something about if are two different things. Elyse Simons, a technician at the Nail Salon at Hotel Bethlehem in Bethlehem, Pa., says she grips her clients’ hands too tightly and holds her file incorrectly. “I already have tendonitis in one wrist,” Simons says, “and I worry about getting CTS. I’ve tried listening to the suggestions of one of my clients who is an occupational therapist, but when I try to hold the file differently I can’t work properly. I don’t know what to do.”

Unfortunately, like Simons, main technicians are resistant to change. Estelina believed she couldn’t change work habits developed over the course of 13 years. But like quitting smoking or nail biting, any bad habit can be overcome with patience and practice.

Just learning how to relax your hands instead of squeezing or tensing them when working on clients is an important preventive measure. Choosing implements that are the right size for your hand can also be a simple way to avoid gripping problems that can later lead to CTS. Using your entire hand to grasp or open a bottle of nail polish is a lot healthier than using your fingers as a claw to lift a jar from its storage rack, or pinching your fingers together to remove a bottle cap.

To understand how hard you are on your body, take this simple test: Stand straight with your arms hanging loosely at your sides. Notice the way your wrists are aligned with your hands and forearm, falling straight against your sides. This is the way your wrists should feel and look when you’re servicing a client — relaxed, in a neutral position.

Unfortunately, many technicians bend their wrists toward their palms as they perform routine motions such as filing, pressing their hands into awkward positions that place too much pressure on the median nerve. “In severe cases of CTS, people’s hands actually start to bend, to turn toward their body,” says C. Ted Ostrem, vice president of marketing for Repetitive Motion Trauma Corporation in Itasca, Ill. “It happens because the flexor muscles, primarily located on the inside of their forearms, never fully relax.”

Learning how to use your tools the light way can feel awkward at first, but don’t give up. It’s like practicing proper posture. Who doesn’t feel an initial tinge of discomfort when someone yells, “Sit up straight!” and you quickly stiffen your spine from a slumped position, throw your shoulders back, and suck your stomach in. Yet, if we constantly remind ourselves to sit correctly, alter a while it becomes rote, and we avoid a whole slew of back and neck problems.

The same is true for learning how to work correctly.

Give yourself permission to slow down and cut your workload in half if that’s what it takes to learn how to hold a file without hurting your hands unnecessarily. “I wish someone would have told me that if I instituted changes to my work area and replaced some of my bad work habits with better ones that I could have avoided CTS,” says another technician, who ignored her symptoms until surgery was her only option. “It would have been a lot easier to learn new ways to work than to have to go through all that pain and suffering.”

Lower Your Stress Level

Based on their research, experts speculate that stress may play a role in the development of CTS.

Many technicians admit that their CTS symptoms worsened during times of stress, and that they might have been able to prevent the symptoms from worsening if they had forced themselves to get oil the workaholic treadmill long enough to incorporate healthier habits in their daily routine.

To assess your stress level, examine your work flow. Do you give yourself at least 5-10 minutes between clients to relax and recoup your energy? Or do you spend the time frantically rushing around to set up for the next client?

Keep a few hand stress relievers in the salon. Keep a sqnishy ball in your drawer that can be used to exercise your hands between clients. Or relieve stress by gently rotating Chinese metal balls, cool to the touch, in your palm.

Some technicians massage each other’s hands. Other technicians perform simple stretching exercises themselves right at their station to alleviate kinks in their back, neck, and arm muscles.

Another therapeutic tool is Carpal Care (800-860-RMTC), an easy-to-use exercise program developed by physiotherapists to prevent and alleviate symptoms associated with CTS. “Carpal Care is an exercise program that uses a special resistive apparatus to strengthen muscles that are the counterparts of those technicians overuse every day.” Ostrem says. “By balancing the over-and-under development of the flexor and extensor muscle groups, manicurists can prevent or alleviate the symptoms of CTS.”

Will exercising, changing bad work habits, and buying a new chair guarantee that you won’t get CTS? Of course not. But most physicians agree that workers who take responsibility for their health and who are willing to change the way they work can reduce the risk of developing CTS.

Take my word for it.

As a writer bound lo a computer keyboard for l0-plus hours a day, I suffered from CTS symptoms several years ago that were so bad I had to stop working for several months. Since then, I have completely changed my workstation by investing in a new desk, chair, and computer that allow me to work without putting undue strain on my hands and waists. I retrained myself to type so my wrists don’t sag downward. I forced myself to become aware of my body position at all times so that I’m sitting straight with my feet flat on the floor, not twisted beneath me in my favorite “bad habit” position. I also learned to listen to my hands when they tell me that it’s time to take a break.

And (knock on wood) I haven’t had a problem since.

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