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What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
The carpal tunnel is a passageway that runs from the forearm through the wrist. Bones form three walls of the tunnel and a strong, broad ligament bridges over them. The median nerve, which supplies feeling to the thumb, index, and ring fingers, and the nine tendons that flex the fingers, passes through this tunnel. This nerve also provides function for the muscles at the base of the thumb (the thenar muscles). Usually, carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is considered an inflammatory disorder caused by repetitive stress, physical injury, or other conditions that cause the tissues around the median nerve to become swollen. It occurs either when the protective lining of the tendons within the carpal tunnel become inflamed and swell or when the ligament that forms the roof becomes thicker and broader. Just as stepping on a hose slows the flow of water through a garden hose, so compression on the median nerve fibers by the swollen tendons and thickened ligament slows down the transmission of nerve signals through the carpal tunnel. The result is pain, numbness, and tingling in the wrist, hand, and fingers (except the little finger, which is not affected by the median nerve).
Carpal tunnel syndrome is one of a group of disorders categorized by several different terms: repetitive stress injuries, cumulative trauma disorder, overuse syndromes, chronic upper limb pain syndrome, or repetitive motion disorders. All of these problems are generally associated with repetitive and forceful use of the hands that damage muscles and bones of the upper extremities.
What Causes Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
It is often very difficult to determine whether the primary cause of CTS is primarily due to work conditions or an underlying medical problem. Carpal tunnel syndrome almost always occurs in adults and most adults work; CTS, then, is very likely to be associated with the work place whether or not it is actually caused by the work itself. Indeed, estimates of work-related CTS vary wildly. Some studies suggest that more than half are due to workplace factors and others that few cases of CTS are actually caused by conditions on the job. In one study, for example, obesity or diseases such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, and arthritis occurred in the majority of people with work-associated CTS. Such conditions are known contributors to carpal tunnel disorder. It is likely that many cases of CTS occur from a combination of factors, including a predisposing medical condition exacerbated by work stress and psychologic and social stressors. In many patients with CTS, an underlying cause for the disorder cannot be discovered.
Some experts believe that incorrect posture may play a large role in the development of CTS, particularly in people who work at computer and other types of keyboards. The tendency to roll the shoulders forward, round the lower back, and thrust the chin forward can shorten the neck and shoulder muscles, compressing nerves in the neck. This, in turn, can affect the wrist, fingers, and hand. It has been difficult, however, to obtain reliable data on the direct link between repetitive hand and wrist tasks and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Studies indicate that psychosocial factors in the workplace, such as intense deadlines, interpersonal relationships, and job design, are major contributors to carpal tunnel pain. Such psychosocial conditions are more likely to be important factors in contributing to CTS in office workers, although they also complicate the condition in workers whose work is primarily physical. [See also, Who Gets Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, below.]
Injuries and Medical Conditions.
Inherited and Inborn Factors.
What Are the Symptoms of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome usually progress gradually over weeks and months and, in some cases, years. The first symptoms may be pain in the wrist and hand or numbness and tingling of the fingers (except the little finger). Patients may also experience a sense of weakness and a tendency to drop things. They may lose the sense of heat and cold or feel that their hands are swollen even though there is no visible swelling. Symptoms may occur not only when the hand is being used but also when it is at rest. In fact, the disorder may be distinguished from similar conditions by pain occurring at night after going to bed. In some cases, labor-related CTS symptoms first occur outside of work, so patients may fail to associate the symptoms with work-related activity. Anyone with recurrent or persistent pain, numbness and tingling, or weakness of the hand should consult a physician for a diagnosis.
What Other Diseases Show the Same Symptoms as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Nerve Entrapment Disorders. Repetitive work can cause pressure on the median nerve in locations other than the wrist and can also affect other nerves in the arm and hand. The branch of the median nerve that runs through the palm of the hand can be damaged directly by repeated pounding or by the use of certain tools requiring a strong grip using the palm, such as needle-nosed pliers. The median nerve can also be pinched up in the forearm.
The ulnar nerve supplies sensation to the ring and little fingers. Like the median nerve, it too can become trapped as a result of repetitive stress, with subsequent loss of sensation in these fingers and the outer half of the palm. This condition, known as ulnar tunnel syndrome, can be a separate disorder or appear with carpal tunnel syndrome. In the latter case, release surgery for CTS usually also relieves the ulnar nerve entrapment. The ulnar nerve can also be affected at the elbow.
Tendon-Related Disorders. Tenosynovitis (swelling of the tendon sheath) in the hands and fingers is also a repetitive stress injury and can effect various parts of the hand and fingers. One or more fingers may feel painful and stiff, especially in the morning; the wrist may be swollen. Trigger finger (also called snapping finger) is a condition brought on when a tendon thickens, leaving the finger in a bent position. It is a common complication of rheumatoid arthritis; it also may occur in diabetes or for unknown causes. De Quervain's disease involves tenosynovitis at the base of the thumb. These disorders are often present with carpal tunnel syndrome.
Patients who have tendinitis (swelling of the tendon) feel pain in the involved area, which is intensified when they contract the muscles adjoining the tendon or when the physician stretches the affected finger or part of the hand.
Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.
Who Gets Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
In 1988, 2.8 million people reported symptoms to their doctors that they believed were those of carpal tunnel syndrome. In a 1998 British study, experts estimated that between 7% and 16% of the population experience CTS. The incidence appears to be increasing. People over age 54 were at higher risk than younger adults. The wide variation in severity and the difficulty in diagnosis make it hard to pinpoint specific figures.
Workers at High Risk.
Even though the increased number of people using computer keyboards has provoked much publicity about their risk for carpal tunnel syndrome, it is actually lower than those in occupations involving heavy labor. The force of the movement may, however, be a particular factor for CTS in typists. One study observed that typists with carpal tunnel syndrome struck the keys with greater force than those without the disorder. Some workers may not even be aware of the amount of force they exert while performing their jobs. For example, the fingers of typists whose speed is 60 words per minute exert up to 25 tons of pressure each day.
People who engage intensively in certain domestic occupations, including knitting, sewing and needlepoint, cooking, housework, carpentry, and extensive use of power tools, are also at risk. Many leisure activities in the home can contribute to the development of CTS, including computer games, sports, and card playing.
Medical Conditions and Treatments.
How Serious Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Carpal tunnel syndrome can range from a minor inconvenience to a disabling condition, depending on its cause and persistence and the individual characteristics of the patient. Many cases of CTS are mild, and some resolve on their own. Once a pregnant women gives birth, for instance, the swelling in her wrists subsides and so do the CTS symptoms. Proper treatment of other medical conditions that cause carpal tunnel syndrome can often help reduce wrist swelling.
If severe cases are left untreated, however, muscles at the base of the thumb may atrophy and sensation may be permanently lost. CTS can become so crippling that people can no longer do their job or even perform simple tasks at home. The syndrome may force people to undergo surgery and miss many days of work and can even prevent them from working at all if their hand functions are permanently impaired.
Occupation-related causes of CTS have had a severe impact on American businesses. Workers with CTS become easily fatigued, experience pain and discomfort, and may not perform up to par. In one study, nearly half of all employees diagnosed with CTS had changed jobs or were absent 30 months after the diagnosis. Because of the difficulty in determining the exact cause of CTS, employers are concerned about high worker's compensation costs due to CTS, which may or may not be due to working conditions. Those receiving compensation are also more likely to be absent from work longer than those not being paid, particularly if the employer is contesting the case. The medical costs and loss of productivity because of carpal tunnel syndrome has been estimated to average $29,000 per injured worker. Work-related injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome, that involve joints and muscles cost the country about $20 billion every year.
How Can Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Be Prevented?
Companies are now taking action to help prevent repetitive stress injuries. In a major survey, 84% reported that they were modifying equipment, tasks, and process; 83% were analyzing their workstations and jobs, and 79% were buying new equipment.
No single mode of prevention exists for carpal tunnel syndrome. It is important, however, to use common sense and ergonomic controls to help minimize risk factors predisposing to work-related CTS or other cumulative trauma disorders. A patient can learn how to adjust the work area, handle tools, or perform tasks in ways that put less stress on the hands and wrists. Exercise programs to strengthen the fingers, hands, wrists, forearms, shoulders, and neck may help prevent CTS. It should be stressed, however, that there has been no evidence that any of these methods can provide complete protection against carpal tunnel syndrome. If the underlying cause is a medical condition, controlling the problem can prevent CTS.
Repetition and Rest. Anyone who does repetitive tasks should begin with a short warm-up period, take frequent break periods, and avoid overexertion of the hand and finger muscles whenever possible. Employers should be urged to vary tasks and work content.
Posture. Good posture is extremely important in preventing carpal tunnel
syndrome, particularly for typists
Force. The force placed on the fingers, hands, and wrists by a repetitive task contributes importantly to CTS. To alleviate the effect of force on the wrist, tools and tasks should be designed so that the wrist position is the same as it would be if the arms dangled in a relaxed manner at the sides. No task should require the wrist to deviate from side to side or to remain flexed or highly extended for long periods.
Keyboard operators should adjust the tension of the keys so that depressing the keyboard does not cause fatigue. The hands and wrists should remain in a relaxed position to avoid excessive force on the keyboard. For computer users, replacing the mouse with a trackball device and the standard keyboard with a jointed-type are helpful substitutions. Wrist rests, which fit under most keyboards, can help keep the wrists and fingers in a comfortable position.
The handles of such tools as screwdrivers, scrapers, paint brushes, and buffers should be designed so that the force of the worker's grip is distributed across the muscle between the base of the thumb and the little fingernot just in the center of the palm. People who need to hold any objectssuch as a pencil, steering wheel, or toolsfor long periods of time should grip them as loosely as possible.
In order to apply force appropriately, the ability to feel an object is extremely
important. Tools with textured handles are helpful. Working at low temperatures, which
reduces sensation in hands and fingers, should be avoided if possible.
Wrists. Make a loose right fist, palm up, and use the left hand to press gently down against the clenched hand. Resist the force with the closed right hand for five seconds, but be sure to keep the wrist straight. Next, turn the right fist palm down and press against the knuckles with the left hand for five seconds. Finally, turn the right palm so the thumb-side of the fist is up and press down again for five seconds. Repeat with the left hand.
Another easy wrist exercise requires first holding one hand straight up next to the shoulder with fingers together and palm facing outward. (The position looks like a shoulder-high salute); next, with the other hand, bend the hand being exercised backward with the fingers still held together and hold for five seconds; and third, spread the fingers and thumb open while the hand is still bent back and hold for five seconds. Repeat five times for each hand.
A third simple exercise is called wrist circles. First hold the second and third fingers up and close the others. Draw five clockwise circles in the air with the two fingertips. Draw five more counterclockwise circles. Repeat with the other hand.
Fingers and Hand. The first exercise is the finger bend and stretch. Clench the fingers of one hand into a fist tightly, and then release, fanning out the fingers. Do this five times. Repeat with the other hand.
To exercise the thumb, bend it against the palm beneath the little finger and hold for five seconds. Spread the fingers apart, palm up, and hold for five seconds. This should be repeated five to 10 times with each hand. Then, gently pull the thumb out and back and holding for five seconds, repeating five to 10 times with each hand.
Forearms. Excessive use of the hands can cause the forearm muscles to tighten, increasing pressure on tendons as they pass through the wrist. Stretching these muscles will reduce this tension. Place the hands together in front of the chest, fingers pointed upward in a prayer-like position. Keeping the palms flat together, raise the elbows to stretch the forearm muscles. Stretch for 10 seconds. Then gently shake the hands limp for a few seconds to loosen them. Repeat frequently when the hands or arms tire from activity.
Neck and Shoulders. Sit upright and place the right hand on top of the left shoulder. Hold that shoulder down and slowly tip the head down toward the right. Keep the face pointed forward, or even turned slightly toward the right. Hold this stretch gently for five seconds. Repeat on the other side.
A second exercise requires standing in a relaxed position with the arms at the side. Shrug the shoulders up, then squeeze the shoulders back, then stretch the shoulders down, and then press them forward. The entire exercise should take about seven seconds.
General Exercise. A regular exercise regimen using a combination of aerobic and resistance training techniques strengthens the muscles in the shoulders, arms, and back, helps reduce weight, and improves overall health and well-being. Some experts have reported that people who are physically fit, including athletes, joggers, and swimmers, have a lower risk for cumulative trauma disorders. People with any chronic medical condition or with risk factors for heart disease should check with their physicians about an appropriate regimen.
What Tests May Be Required To Diagnose Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Because carpal tunnel syndrome often affects a person's work and may also involve worker's compensation benefits, it is very important to achieve, if possible an accurate diagnosis for carpal tunnel syndrome. Although some companies are concerned that patients will falsify their symptoms in order to acquire workmen's compensation benefits, one study showed that workers whose employment made them eligible for benefits reported their disabilities just as accurately as those without the possibility for compensation.
Medical and Personal History.
How Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Treated?
The affected hand and wrist should be rested for at least two weeks; this allows the swollen, inflamed tissues to shrink and relieves pressure on the median nerve. Ice may provide relief. Some patients have reported that alternating warm and cold soaks have been beneficial. If hot applications relieve pain, most likely the problem is not caused by CTS but by another condition producing similar symptoms.
Some people wear a wrist splint or brace at night or during sports to help keep the wrist from bending. The splint is used for several weeks or months depending on the severity of the problem. Except for anecdotal reports, no evidence exists that these supports actually help. Some experts believe that wrist supports may actually exacerbate the problem by reducing circulation and restricting movement so that the shoulder muscles tense up.
Physical Therapy. If symptoms subside, the patient may proceed with a supervised hand and wrist strengthening exercise program usually offered by physical or occupational therapists. One study found that most people with CTS felt improvement after two months of physical therapy that included exercises to improve balance and posture.
Laser Light Therapy. One recent study found that automobile workers with CTS who were treated with a process known as cold laser light had greater improvement in grip strength and range of wrist movement than those engaged in physical therapy. The process uses low-energy laser light that penetrates, but does not cut the skin and stimulates cells activity in the injured areas.
Ultrasound. Ultrasound treatment is a safe procedure that bombards the wrist with sound waves. In one study, ultrasound reduced symptoms, and relief lasted for at least six months.
Release Surgical Procedures.
Candidates for Surgery. A number of experts believe that release surgery is performed too often and that CTS sufferers should pursue conservative treatment and physical therapy as aggressively as possible before choosing this more invasive option. Nevertheless, other experts argue that often the condition is progressive and will worsen over time without surgery, which generally brings good results. Waiting too long may also significantly reduce the benefits of surgery; one study indicated that surgery was most successful when it was performed within three years of the diagnosis of the disorder. Electrodiagnostic tests for nerve conduction might be helpful in determining who would most benefit from surgery. The results suggested that workers who had normal or near-normal nerve conduction results before surgery were least likely to benefit from surgery. Those with significantly slow nerve conduction and other abnormal results showed the most improvement after surgery. One study indicated that patients most likely to be satisfied with the surgery are those who had less preoperative muscle weakness and whose symptoms were worse at night. Patients with CTS from nerve damage due to medical conditions, such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, or hypothyroidism, appear to have the same outcome as those without such conditions and so such disorders should not preclude them from sugery.
It is generally recommended that if symptoms persist for four to six months and if muscles begin to atrophy in the base of the palm, the patient may require surgery. The procedure does not cure all patients and because it permanently cuts the carpal ligament, some wrist strength is often lost.
Open Release Surgery. Traditionally, surgery for CTS entails an open surgical procedure performed in an outpatient facility. A local anesthetic is injected either into the wrist and hand or higher up the arm. The surgeon makes a two-inch incision in the palm and cuts the carpal ligament free from the underlying median nerve. The ligament is literally released and therefore the pressure on the median nerve is relieved. Carpal tunnel release is the most commonly performed hand surgery, with more than 100,000 procedures each year. The risk of complications with this surgery is less than one percent. Although other techniques are being developed, this procedure is still the most cost effective.
Mini-Open Release. A more recent variation known as a mini-open release technique uses an incision that is only about an inch and a half, and it can be performed in the doctor's office with only a local anesthetic. The operation takes only about 12 minutes. The results of one small study reported no infection, no injury to the median nerve, and no loss of finger mobility, or recurrence of CTS after a year. It is more expensive at this time than standard open release but is less costly than the other less invasive procedureendoscopy [see below].
Endoscopy. Endoscopy for carpal tunnel syndrome is a less invasive procedure than standard open release. One or two 1/2-inch incisions are made in the wrist and palm, and one or two endoscopespencil-thin tubesare inserted. A tiny camera and a knife are inserted through the lighted tubes. While observing the underside of the carpal ligament on a screen, the surgeon cuts the ligament to free the compressed median nerve. Patients do not end up with a surgical scar and can often return to work within half the time as in standard open surgery. In one study, 98% of patients experienced relief of numbness and weakness and in 90% pain was reduced. Only 12% of patients required more than two doses of pain relievers after the operation. Nearly 85% of patients who were not on workers compensation returned to work within a month. One 1998 analysis reported that success rates average about 96%; complication rates are 2.7%; and failure rates are 2.6%. As surgeons gain more experience with this procedure, studies are now reporting similar success and complications rates to standard open surgeries. In some studies, patients had better grip strength after endoscopy than after standard release, and, in many studies, patients reported less pain and returned to normal activities earlier than those who had the open release procedure. Complications, including tingling or loss of sensation in the fingers, increase with surgeons who are less experienced. Usually, such complications are temporary. Patients should not be shy about asking for the number of endoscopic procedures their surgeons have performed. Some experts believe that there may be a higher recurrence rate of CTS with endoscopy because the view of the hand is limited during this procedure and surgeons may not see complicating conditions that may require treatment. (In the open release procedure, the surgeon has a full view of the structures in the hand.) Long-term studies are needed to determine this.
Postsurgery. For some patients, release surgery relieves CTS symptoms of numbness and tingling immediately. In one study, grip and pinch strengths exceeded preoperative status within six weeks. Peak improvement may take a long timein one study an average of almost 10 months. Postsurgery complications may include nerve damage, infection, scarring, pain, and stiffness. The incision site may remain sore for months, and some patients experience some scar pain for years with open release. People who have the operation on both hands are completely incapacitated for about two weeks and must have someone to help them at home. Returning to strenuous work right after surgery may cause the symptoms to recur, and patients generally stay out of work for at least month and often much longer, depending upon the type of surgery and severity of the condition. To help rebuild wrist strength, physical therapy is very important. Hand exercises can help restore circulation, muscle strength, and joint flexibility in the hand and wrist.
Long-Term Outcome. Although carpal tunnel surgery is one of the most common procedures in the U.S., few studies have been done to determine the long-term outcome for patients after they return to work. In one such study, five years after the operation, 30% of patients experienced poor to fair strength and some scar pain, and in 57% some symptoms returned, especially pain. Certain people will always experience residual numbness in the fingertips. In spite of these negative findings, 87% of the patients in the study reported that, in general, their outcomes were good to excellent. Another 18-month study reported that over 70% of those who had the open release operation experienced improvement in at least one of three symptoms (pain, numbness, and tingling) and only about half experienced reduction in all three symptoms. Over 90% had normal grip and pinch strength.
The elderly, those with very severe preoperative symptoms, and people involved with heavy manual labor, particularly those working with vibrating tools, appear to have a poorer outcome than others. One five-year study found that people who had been working at heavy labor stayed out longer and appeared to have slower improvement, but responses after five years did not differ among occupational groups. In some studies, however, only slightly more than half the people who used vibrating hand-held tools were symptom-free three years after their operations. Because between 10% and a third of patients lose some wrist strength with both endoscopy and open release, patients who have jobs requiring high amounts of force to the hand and wrist may not be able to perform them after surgery. Such workers may also have problems in other parts of the upper body, including elbows and shoulders, that are not resolved with surgery and can persist. Studies indicate the between 10% and 15% of patients change jobs after the operation.
Percutaneous Balloon Carpal Tunnel-Plasty.
What Are the Psychologic Ramifications of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Carpal tunnel syndrome exacts a psychologic toll. Anyone who cannot use his or her hands is bound to be depressed and suffer from low self-esteem. A worker with CTS may be forced to give up his or her livelihood. An employee experiencing hand pain may try to ignore it and put more stress on the wrists, leading to poor work performance. Because the disease is not readily visible, coworkers and managers may harass CTS sufferers and accuse them of faking to get out of work.
At home, people may suffer from daily pain and loss of freedom. They cannot contribute actively to their families because they may not be able to drive a car or do ordinary tasks, such as picking up groceries. They may become still more depressed if they have to give up enjoyable sports and hobbies golf or tennis or riding a bicycle. Support groups for carpal tunnel syndrome and other sufferers of repetitive stress injuries can be very helpful in exchanging information and offering advice and solace. Stress management techniques can also be useful in dealing with the psychologic and emotional issues accompanying these injuries.
Where Else Can Help for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Be Obtained?
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
Association of obesity, gender, age and occupation with carpal tunnel syndrome. Aust N Z J Surg 1998 Mar;68(3):190-3
Carpal tunnel syndrome: Is keyboarding bad for your health? Priorities, Vol 9 No. 1 1997 (Publication of the American Council on Science and Health)
Carpal tunnel syndrome as a herald of autoimmune rheumatic disorders. Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, March 1997
Carpal tunnel syndrome and work organisation in repetitive work: a cross sectional study in France. Study Group on Repetitive Work. Occup Environ Med 1998 Mar;55(3):180-7
Carpal tunnel syndrome as a repetitive motion disorder. Clin Orthop 1998 Jun;(351):78-89
A case-control study of obesity as a risk factor for carpal tunnel syndrome in a population of 600 patients presenting for independent medical examination. Journal of Hand Surgery , March 1997
Concurrent medical disease in work-related carpal tunnel syndrome. Annals of Internal Medicine, 7/27/98
A Critical Review of Epidemiologic Evidence for Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders of the Neck, Upper Extremity, and Low Back U.S. Department Of Health And Human Services, Public Health Service , Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Cincinnati, OH July 1997
The effect of temperature on nerve conduction parameters in carpal tunnel syndrome. Muscle Nerve 1998 Aug;21(8):1089-91
Endoscopic treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome: a critical review. J Neurosurg 1998 May;88(5):817-26
Incidence of diagnosed carpal tunnel syndrome in a general population. Epidemiology 1998 May;9(3):342-5
Long-term symptom outcomes of carpal tunnel syndrome and its treatment. Journal of Hand Surgery , March 1997
Oral drug of choice in carpal tunnel syndrome. Neurology. August 1998
Pregnancy-related carpal tunnel syndrome. Hand Surg [Br] 1998 Feb;23(1):98-101
Prevalence and predictors of long-term work disability due to carpal tunnel syndrome. Am J Ind Med 1998 Jun;33(6):543-50
Preventingand relievingcarpal tunnel syndrome. Consumer Reports on Health, February 1998
Surgical treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome in patients with peripheral neuropathy. Neurology. Octoboer 1997
Testing for carpal tunnel syndrome. HealthNews. 4/20/98
Two-portal endoscopic carpal tunnel release: an outcome analysis of 333 hands. Ann Plast Surg 1998 May;40(5):542-8
Use of screening nerve conduction studies for predicting future carpal tunnel syndrome. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, February 1997
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Last Updated: 02/07/99