HONOLULU—Helicopter pilots are burdened with an increased risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, according to a new study.

The report in Military Medicine pointed out that the incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome is increased in occupations exposed to repetitive motion, poor wrist posture and vibration exposure.1

Tripler Army Medical Center-led researchers noted that, while all pilots are exposed to these factors, helicopter pilots are especially exposed to vibration. In light of that, the study team sought to identify the incidence and risk factors for CTS in military aviators.

With the Defense Medical Epidemiological Database queried for all new cases of CTS from 2006 to 2015, researchers focused on incidence rates for helicopter pilots, fixed-wing pilots and nonpilot officers.

The data was analyzed using demographic factors. In addition, the authors asked pilots to classify themselves into a white or nonwhite race. The study then evaluated whether any differences existed in CTS incidence rates between white and nonwhite pilots.

Overall, 7,398 new cases of CTS among 2.3 million person-years were identified within the study period.

Results indicated that increasing age, female gender and nonwhite race were significantly correlated with higher IR. Researchers also advised that fixed-wing pilots demonstrated significantly lower adjusted IR than nonpilot officers in each age group.

On the other hand, helicopter pilots demonstrated higher IR than fixed-wing pilots in each age group. Researchers explained that, while helicopter pilots had lower incidence of CTS early in their career compared to nonpilot officers, by ages 40 and older, their incident rates was significantly higher at 1.21.

“Analysis of the database indicates that fixed-wing pilot status is a protective factor against development of CTS among U.S. military officers,” the authors concluded. “ In contrast, helicopter pilots were found to be at an increased rate of CTS than their fixed-wing counterparts. Their incidence is comparable to their nonpilot officer peers early in their career but is significantly increased at the senior level.”

Researchers also emphasized that increasing age and female gender are risk factors in the military officer population, as expected. In addition, they noted that nonwhite race was found to increase risk in the military population, in contrast to reports of the civilian population.

  1. Deal JB, Magee AJ. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in Military Aviators [published online ahead of print, 2020 Jun 30]. Mil Med. 2020;usaa077. doi:10.1093/milmed/usaa077