The Belleville News Democrat says that thousands of dollars are paid in Illinois to employees who have been diagnosed with carpal tunnel or cubital tunnel with “just a doctor’s note.”
Is it that easy? Can you find a doctor who says you have carpal tunnel or cubital tunnel and just get the Illinois Workers Comp system to pay you thousands of dollars?
No. It’s not that easy, at least not all of the time.
I have handled many carpal tunnel, cubital tunnel, radial tunnel, or lateral epicondylitis workers comp cases in my career. Some have settled easily, some haven’t. I’ve even lost some. What can people really expect if they have a carpal tunnel case?
1. There needs to be proof that you actually have the condition. A “doctor’s note” isn’t usually enough. Doctors can do tests, which usually include simple tests such as the Tinel or Phalen test, but usually involve electrodiagnostic tests such as EMGs. If all you do is walk in to your family doctor’s office, tell them your wrists/elbows/hands hurt, and he hands you a slip of paper saying you have carpal tunnel, you need to find a different doctor. Likewise, any good workers comp insurance company will likely require at least an EMG.
2. There needs to be causation. In other words, your work activities need to have aggravated or accelerated your condition. Not all work activities do this – many orthopedic surgeons I’ve spoken to over the years suggest that everyday office activities such as typing do not aggravate or accelerate these conditions. Likewise, there is a significant amount of medical literature which suggests that carpal tunnel and similar conditions are idiopathic in most cases – meaning there is no known cause.
3. Your employer may require a second opinion. It’s typical for employers to send their injured employees to an “Independent Medical Examination” for a second opinion. Many of these doctors do a lot of work for insurance companies and are chosen specifically for their defense-oriented beliefs. Much of the time, their opinion will be that either (a) you don’t have the condition your doctor says you do, or (b) you have that condition, but you didn’t get it from work… and actually, (c) you have it, but you should be better by now, and the fact that you say you aren’t means you’re lying.
4. You have to give notice to your employer, and if you didn’t do it right, your employer might deny that you ever did it at all. Illinois law requires that an employee give notice to his employer within 45 days of when an injury “manifests itself.” When does a repetitive trauma injury such as carpal tunnel “manifest itself?” Typically someone starts to notice symptoms long before the symptoms get to the point where work is affected, or where someone feels the need to talk to a doctor. But because there is no bright line (ie 45 days from when you first notice pain, or when you first get diagnosed with the condition, etc) winning these cases can be tricky. Even in a good case, your employer may try to either deny that any notice was given or argue that notice wasn’t given early enough.
The bottom line is that some of these cases are easy – for example, a worker who uses heavy, vibrating tools all day will likely develop one of these conditions after time. Those cases might not involve much of a fight. Other cases will be heavily contested. An attorney isn’t always necessary, but when there is a fight, you probably want someone good on your side. (Not to mention that hiring an attorney early on may help you take the right steps with your case and avoid much of the fight altogether.)
(Howard Zimmerle is a workers compensation attorney helping injured workers in Rock Island, Moline, East Moline, Galesburg, and much of western Illinois. He can be reached at 309-794-1660 or hzimmerle [at] mjwlaw.com)