Working with tools and machinery can be hard on your body. Hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) can occur after long-term use. This condition is very different from other forms of work-related arm, hand, and shoulder pain as it requires specific types of treatment and attention. Read on for more information on what HAVS is, how to tell if you have it, and what you can do to slow its progression.

What is hand-arm vibration syndrome?

Pain in the neck and shoulders is a common pain condition. It can be caused by anything from arthritis to poor posture, to say nothing of occupational activities like lifting, repetitive movements, and frequent use of heavy machinery. So what is hand-arm vibration syndrome specifically? And how can you tell if it’s the cause of your pain?

Sometimes called Raynaud’s syndrome or vibration white finger, HAVS is an incurable and potentially disabling condition that worsens over time. Approximately 2.5 million people in the United States are exposed to HAVS risk factors every day. HAVS is characterized by two categories of symptoms: cold sensitivity and sensorineural symptoms.

Cold sensitivity is exactly what it sounds like. The affected regions (your hands, arms, or shoulders) will feel worse in cold temperatures. They won’t tolerate temperature changes as well as before, and temperatures you used to be comfortable in may now be unpleasant or even painful.

The term “sensorineural” refers to any symptoms brought about by damage to the nervous system. This consists of numbness and tingling, including a “pins and needles” sensation.

Do I have HAVS?

While a doctor is the only person who can officially diagnose you with a medical condition, conducting careful research of your own before making an appointment can give you an advantage. This is especially true with HAVS, which is still not widely known, even among physicians. Another potential barrier to a HAVS diagnosis is its similarity to carpal tunnel syndrome. In fact, these two conditions can and often do occur together.

If you think you have hand-arm vibration syndrome, tell your doctor about your suspicions. Write down a list of your questions, symptoms, and concerns, and have it handy during your visit. If your doctor has little experience with HAVS, you may both find it helpful if you can provide your doctor with the research you have done as well as a detailed account of your symptoms.

If your doctor shows an unwillingness to listen to you on this or any other issue, don’t be afraid to get a second opinion. You deserve a doctor who will take you and your concerns seriously.

What causes hand-arm vibration syndrome?

Hand-arm vibration syndrome causes really boil down to one thing: prolonged exposure to vibrations, typically those emitted by power tools. The vibrating negatively impacts your circulatory and nervous systems. For this reason, HAVS is especially prevalent among workers in certain industries.

If you work in mining, construction, metal-working, or any other occupation that requires the frequent and long-term use of power tools, you are at risk for HAVS. Other factors, such as frequent exposure to cold, smoking, and poorly maintained tools, can also increase your likelihood of developing hand-arm vibration syndrome.

The parts of your body that are affected by hand-arm vibration syndrome depend on the vibration frequency of the tools you use. Tools that vibrate at a high frequency, such as drills and saws, typically impact the fingers and hands. Low-frequency vibrations, from tools like vibratory forks and sand rammers, more often affect the arms and shoulders.

Even relatively little exposure to power tool vibrations, if it reoccurs over a long enough timespan, may increase your risk of HAVS.

A 2003 study published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine examined Swedish car mechanics who had a mean exposure time of 14 minutes a day to power tools. The longer the mechanics had been on the job, the more likely they were to exhibit hand-arm vibration syndrome symptoms.

Vibration syndrome stages and symptoms

Hand-arm vibration syndrome stages are measured with the Stockholm Workshop Scale (SWS). This scale was first developed in the 1980s, and various modifications have been made to it since then. Several versions of this scale exist, though some researchers question its usefulness for diagnostic purposes. The SWS remains helpful as a general guideline for you to understand the general progression of HAVS, but it cannot and should not replace professional diagnosis from a doctor.

HAVS involves two sets of symptoms, each of which has its own ranking in the scale. The cold-related symptoms are rated from 0 to 4. The sensorineural symptoms are rated from 0SN to 3SN. We’ll discuss both symptom types simultaneously for simplicity’s sake. However, it is possible for your symptoms to be at different stages. For example, you may be at Stage 1 (cold-sensitivity) at the same time as you are at Stage 2SN (sensorineural).

It is also possible for one hand to be at a more advanced stage than the other. Everyone’s symptoms present differently and at different times.

Stage 1

Stage 0/0SN is the pre-onset phase. At this stage, you have no symptoms.

HAVS officially begins at Stage 1/1SN, which indicates the presence of mild and intermittent symptoms. These include:

  • Occasional numbness
  • Tingling
  • Whiteness in the fingers, especially in cold weather

This stage is irritating but does not yet have a significant impact on your life.

Stage 2

Stage 2/2SN represents the intermediate phase of the condition. As HAVS progresses, your symptoms get more and more frequent, and you will lose more feeling and dexterity.

The blanching or whitening of the fingers gradually worsen, lasting longer and spreading from the fingertips to the whole hand.

Stages 3 and 4

Stages 3 and 4/Stage 3SN are the most serious stages. Left untreated, hand-arm vibration syndrome can result in permanent disability.

Without treatment, the affected digits and/or limbs could deteriorate to the point where you may not be able to work anymore. The numbness and tingling is now constant for patients at this stage.

You may also notice skin changes, such as lesions or discoloration.

Because hand-arm vibration syndrome is so serious, it’s important to get a diagnosis and start making plans to combat the spread of symptoms as soon as possible. The rest of this post is devoted to exploring the prevention methods and treatments currently available.

How do you prevent hand-arm vibration syndrome from worsening?

There are three areas where you can make changes to slow the progression of HAVS. They are yourself, your tools, and your working environment.

First, look after yourself. If you suspect you have hand-arm vibration syndrome, the first thing you should do is make an appointment with your doctor. They will run tests to determine how far the condition has progressed. Early diagnosis and treatment is vital to slowing the advancement of hand-arm vibration syndrome.

Your tools

Next, look at your tools and personal equipment. Talk to your supervisor or HR, if available, during this review.

Some workers find protective gloves helpful. There are a number of anti-vibration (AV) gloves on the market that claim to reduce the effect of power tool vibrations, but their effectiveness varies. One study found that these gloves worked better against high-frequency vibrations than low-frequency vibrations.

In addition, wearing AV gloves had a significant negative impact on grip strength. Regular protective gloves were found to be just as effective against low-frequency vibrations without affecting grip.

If you do decide to try AV gloves, choose a pair with fingers. This may sound obvious, but fingerless AV gloves won’t protect your fingers, which are especially vulnerable to HAVS.

Once you have done all you can for your personal equipment, it’s time to look at your tools. Because HAVS is caused by power tool usage, it’s important to be careful with not just what tools you use, but also how you use them.

Don’t spend too long using any one tool. According to OSHA, a good general rule is to take a 10- to 15-minute break every hour. If possible, switch between tools throughout the workday rather than use the same tool for long stretches. As noted, talk to your supervisor and ensure they give you the appropriate flexibility to protect your health on the job.

These are good work practices, but as stated before, repeatedly using power tools for even brief periods of time can increase your risk for hand-arm vibration syndrome. You will therefore want to take other precautionary measures in addition to these.

Make sure your tools are working properly. Tools that are in good repair will vibrate less than tools that are old or broken. Taking care of your equipment is good for both the tools and for you.

You can also minimize vibrations from your tools in various ways. Try adding special vibration dampening accessories, like pads or mounts, to your tools. These can reduce the vibrations transmitted from your tools to your hands.

Your working environment

Finally, your working environment can either increase or decrease your exposure to workplace health hazards.

A healthy, communicative workplace can often spot potential issues early enough to keep them from doing any harm. One way to maintain a strong work environment is through ergonomics. This is the process of employers and employees working together to create a work environment that is safe for everyone.

Ergonomic practices include special training, encouraging workers to identify and help fix potential problems, and regular evaluation of the effectiveness of workplace safety measures. Using these strategies can help not only you but your coworkers have a healthier, more positive work experience.

Depending on your work environment, it may not be possible for you to implement some of the above suggestions. If your current supervisor will not make accommodations, talk to upper management or HR if possible. If not, focus on the prevention strategies that are practical for you and your situation.

Making changes to your work life can be incredibly difficult, but doing nothing can make your condition worse. Hand-arm vibration syndrome will not go away, and the longer you delay taking action, the faster it will progress. It’s best to start putting together a plan right away.

How to treat hand-arm vibration syndrome

There is no cure for hand-arm vibration syndrome, but there are steps you can take to slow the disease’s progression and improve your quality of life.

Smoking is a risk factor for HAVS and can make HAVS worse if you already have it. If you smoke, take steps to quit. Some people find nicotine products, such as gum and patches, helpful. Others quit by gradually reducing their nicotine intake over time. Talk to your doctor about ways you can safely quit smoking.

Similarly, other drugs, including caffeine and decongestants, may lead to or exacerbate HAVS symptoms. Take a look through your medicine cabinet and reevaluate which medications you use, and how often.

Low temperatures often trigger HAVS symptoms. Try to find someplace warm to stay when the weather gets cold. If you have to go out in the cold or touch cold objects, including your tools, wear gloves and warm clothes.

In extreme cases of hand-arm vibration syndrome, calcium channel blockers may ease symptoms for some patients. These medications lower blood pressure and are therefore used to treat various heart and circulatory conditions. However, there is little evidence to suggest this treatment is effective for HAVS.

Other treatments will focus on managing symptoms, notably pain. These may include medications or pain-relieving injections.

Get help

Treating hand-arm vibration syndrome is no small task. It will take a lifetime of care and caution to maximize your quality of life. Be kind to yourself as you begin this undertaking. Try implementing one change at a time rather than all of them at once, and always reach out for support—professional and personal—if you need it.

Your doctors can suggest more lifestyle or pain relieving options to manage your HAVS symptoms. You can find a pain doctor in your area by clicking the button below or looking for one in your area by using the tips here:

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