Carpal tunnel syndrome—also called median nerve compression—is a common condition that causes numbness and tingling in the wrist and hands. Carpal tunnel syndrome can make it difficult to perform work-related activities such as typing or moving objects.
Some people with carpal tunnel syndrome have mild symptoms that can resolve with rest after a few weeks or months. But others have more severe symptoms that might require surgery and significantly interfere with their ability to use their hands. People with advanced carpal tunnel syndrome can qualify for Social Security disability benefits.
Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) happens when the median nerve, which runs down the arm into the hand, becomes compressed at the wrist. The compression is usually the result of inflammation of the connective tissues (tendons) that surround the nerve.
Because the median nerve controls sensations to the palm, thumb, and fingers, when the nerve is compressed, it becomes harder to control the electrical impulses that tell your fingers and thumb to move.
Carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms usually start gradually and include:
Symptoms can increase during the night because of how you might position your wrist while you sleep. Daytime activities such as holding a book, texting, or driving can also cause CTS symptoms to flare up.
CTS is usually diagnosed by performing a nerve conduction study. A nerve conduction study is performed by sending a small electrical signal through your median nerve. Your doctor will then measure the degree of latency (slowness) based on how long it takes the signal to travel through the nerve.
The results of the nerve conduction study will help your doctor determine the best course of treatment for your CTS. If the study shows mild or moderate nerve latency, your doctor might prescribe a wrist splint or anti-inflammatory medications. If the study shows severe carpal tunnel syndrome, your doctor might recommend corticosteroid injections or surgical intervention.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) recognizes that symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome can prevent you from working full-time. Almost every job imaginable requires you to use your fingers and hands—such as pastry chefs who create intricate designs, surgeons who manipulate precise instruments, bus drivers who turn the steering wheel, and administrative assistants who must type quickly.
If your carpal tunnel symptoms are severe enough that you can only use your hands and fingers occasionally throughout the workday, the SSA is unlikely to find that you can perform any job.
When you submit an application for Social Security disability benefits, a claims examiner with Disability Determination Services (DDS) will review your file to determine whether symptoms from your carpal tunnel syndrome prevent you from working for at least twelve months. The examiner will be on the lookout for the following medical evidence in your application:
Based on the medical evidence and the details in your function report, the examiner will make an assessment about your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is a set of restrictions that reflect the most you're capable of doing, physically and mentally, in a work environment. A typical RFC for somebody with carpal tunnel syndrome will include limitations on how long you can use your arms, hands, and fingers to grab, hold, and move objects.
As mentioned above, very few jobs exist that don't require you to use your fingers and hands. For disability applicants with carpal tunnel syndrome, their RFC will almost certainly include restrictions on how long they can grasp and press objects. In Social Security lingo, these restrictions are called manipulative limitations.
Manipulative limitations are categorized further into fine and gross manipulation. Fine manipulation consists of movements that you do with your fingers, such as typing or pressing buttons. Gross manipulation consists of movements that you do with your whole hand, such as grasping a mug or turning a doorknob.
Social Security classifies manipulative limitations according to how long you can perform the activity in a workday, but the definitions aren't always up to date and consistent with what a vocational expert might testify to.
The more severe your carpal tunnel symptoms are, the more restrictive your manipulative limitations will be. Whether your symptoms are in your dominant or non-dominant hand can also help rule out the kinds of jobs you can do.
Social Security uses your RFC to determine whether you're currently able to perform jobs that you've done in the past. If you can't do any of your past work, then—depending on additional factors such as your age and education—the agency will determine whether you're able to perform any other jobs in the national economy. If your carpal tunnel symptoms rule out all work, the SSA will approve your application for disability benefits.
The SSA provides several ways for you to start your application for disability benefits.
Consider contacting an experienced disability attorney or advocate for help with your disability claim. Your disability lawyer can help collect and submit your medical records, handle any communications with the SSA, and represent you at a hearing in front of an administrative law judge.
Updated November 4, 2022