Hand–arm Vibration Syndrome

Painful, pale fingers associated with the use of vibrating tools

  • More common in males
  • Affects people who use vibrating machinery; smoking and exposure to cold aggravate symptoms
  • Age and genetics are not significant factors

Hand–arm vibration syndrome, also known as vibration white finger, causes pain and numbness in parts of the body that are repeatedly exposed to intense vibration from machinery. As the name of the condition implies, the hands, arms, and in particular the fingers are most commonly affected. Prolonged exposure to vibration from the use of mechanical tools causes localized constriction of the small blood vessels and nerve damage. Smoking and exposure to cold, which also constrict the small blood vessels, may trigger or aggravate the symptoms of hand–arm vibration syndrome.

About 3 in 100 people in employment, most of them men, are exposed to machine vibration that may lead to hand–arm vibration syndrome. In the past, the mining and engineering industries were responsible for the majority of cases. The use of chainsaws in the forestry industry is another common cause.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of hand–arm vibration syndrome do not appear immediately after exposure to vibration but tend to develop slowly over several years of exposure. Symptoms are often more severe in one hand than the other and may include:

  • Pain, numbness, and tingling in the fingers, hands, or arms.

  • Pale or blue fingers.

  • Difficulty manipulating small objects, such as picking up coins, buttoning clothes, or tying shoelaces.

At first, the symptoms of the syndrome tend to occur intermittently, but they become more frequent and persistent as the condition progresses.

What might be done?

If you have the symptoms described here and you have been working with vibrating machinery, your doctor may suspect hand–arm vibration syndrome. Once the disorder has been diagnosed, you should avoid exposure to vibration. Your doctor may advise you to change jobs. You should also avoid anything that makes the symptoms worse, such as smoking and exposure to cold. There is no specific treatment, but, if you have severe symptoms, your doctor may prescribe calcium channel blocker drugs, which dilate the blood vessels.

If you use vibrating machinery, make sure that it is in good working order and that you know how to operate it correctly and safely. In addition, you should always wear approved protective gloves. If you manage to avoid further exposure to vibrating machinery, the symptoms of hand–arm vibration syndrome may improve. However, once persistent numbness has developed, the condition is usually irreversible.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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