Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Fishermen

As published on Page 28 in the JUNE 2023 issue of Commercial Fisheries News

By James Wall, Occupational Therapy Student
University of Southern Maine

Photo courtesy of


From the moment you wrap your fingers around that first cup of coffee in the morning through hauling traps, handling line, and operating boats, your hands play a critical role in your ability to accomplish these tasks and more. For some, impaired function in their hands can make necessary tasks difficult or nearly impossible. This is especially true for people who make their living using their hands, such as fishermen. People who work with their hands should watch for feelings of numbness, tingling, or even burning (paresthesia) which might develop in their hands or wrists. These symptoms could be the initial signs of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome or CTS occurs when a narrow passageway made of bones and ligaments on the palm side of the wrist compresses and puts pressure on the median nerve. This can result in numbness, tingling, and other painful symptoms in the hand, wrist, and arm.

In addition to pain, CTS can impact your ability to grasp or pinch objects which may result in dropping things more frequently or having trouble handling a fishing net or line (University of Washington, 2023).

CTS is one of the most frequently occurring musculoskeletal disorders of the upper arm and its prevalence has been estimated to be anywhere between 2-5% of the U.S. population (Torres da Costa et al., 2015 and Shiri et al., 2009). Due to their work with their hands, fishermen are even more susceptible to developing CTS than the general population.

Some possible causes of CTS include: awkward hand/wrist positioning during tasks, repetitive wrist/hand motions, exposure to vibration, working in cold weather, obesity, alcohol use, smoking, increased age, and diabetes. (Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers, 2016)

Fishermen are one of the occupations that might be at an increased risk for developing CTS because of the work conditions.

Some strategies for trying to prevent CTS include:

  • working with your wrist in a neutral position (not bent to either side)
  • minimizing repetitive actions by changing what you are doing or taking frequent breaks (at least every hour)
  • not gripping objects with full force (if possible)
  • avoid holding objects for prolonged periods of time
  • limit the amount of time you are working in the cold (and wear appropriate clothes)
  • avoid excessive vibration or wear anti-vibration gloves when you must
  • do light stretches, strength training and staying hydrated.
    (Maine Coast Fisherman Association, 2021)

With early intervention and treatment, recovery from CTS has a very good outlook. However, if left untreated, CTS can progress to affecting both hands and could lead to permanent nerve and muscle damage. If you think you might be experiencing some of the symptoms described above, please be sure to contact your healthcare provider so that they can help you properly identify the issue and provide you with appropriate treatment.