Barista elbow?!
June 11, 2008 7:23 PM   Subscribe

Help! I am a barista and my elbow hurts! What should I do?

My elbow started aching after shifts a couple of weeks ago. It was minor, it would go away within a couple of hours. I started using a lighter tamp, which seemed to help for a while. Yesterday, it hurt for longer. This morning, I adjusted my grind so that I could tamp very lightly, but still, by the end of my shift, almost each time I tamped there was a slight pain in my elbow, much like I had hit my funny bone, but nowhere near as severe. Also, sometimes there is a slight tingling in my hand.

My shift ended at 11AM, it is now 9:15PM and my elbow still feels weird. I suspect that this is a result of putting too much weight on my elbow with hard tamping (which I have quit doing, I've used wimpy tamps for my last few shifts), and from the forceful motion required to wrench the portafilter into and out of the espresso machine each time I pull a shot. I am scheduled to work again tomorrow! This will require much more tamping and wrenching! I'm worried about permanent damage.

What should I do (quitting my job is not really an option right now)?
posted by waltzing astronomers to Health & Fitness (21 answers total)
How soon can you see a doctor?
posted by winston at 7:29 PM on June 11, 2008

Tell your boss immediately. This will be helpful if the injury is deemed work-related (think worker's comp, etc). Then right after that, go see a doctor as soon as possible.
posted by self at 7:31 PM on June 11, 2008

For what it is worth (without having examined you or seen your "tamping" movement myself), it sounds like you have tendonitis, which may be causing some ulnar nerve irritation/entrapment. You should: a.) definitely tell your employer, b.) probably see your primary care physician, and most importantly, c.) take a break from tamping. If this is a tendonitis, it can take weeks to fully resolve.

Non-steroidals (e.g., ibuprofen) and rest will probably make you feel better, but don't be fooled - these types of repetitive stress injuries can take weeks to fully heal, and many people who develop tendonitis get back to doing whatever it was that caused the initial injury (running, cycling, tamping) as soon as they feel better, but well before they're fully recovered.

You should ask your boss for lighter duty (e.g., cashiering).
posted by scblackman at 7:37 PM on June 11, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far. Also, I don't have health insurance for the next four months, so seeing a doctor is a last resort for me.
posted by waltzing astronomers at 8:00 PM on June 11, 2008

Full stop. You need to see a doctor and you don't need health insurance to get it paid for.

Your employer is required to carry workers compensation insurance, and this situation qualifies for both compensated medical care and compensated time off, if required by the physician.

See your employer immediately and report the situation. If they don't volunteer it, ask that a workers compensation claim be filled out and filed with the insurer. You are required to sign it. Get a copy of it. Ask whether you can see any doctor for this, or if they have a designated medical office (this may depend on what state you're in). Get information on where the doctor should bill charges to the insurance company.

Then get medical help for this. It should be fully paid, no copayments or anything. If the doctor requires you to take time off, it should be compensated, usually at something like 2/3rds your normal pay after the first few days off (depends on the state).
posted by beagle at 8:13 PM on June 11, 2008

If it's work-caused, which it sounds like it is, your boss should be on the hook for the doctor's bill, not you.
posted by Stewriffic at 8:18 PM on June 11, 2008

As scblackman mentioned, sounds like a repetitive motion/repetitive stress injury. Generally, the only way for that to get better is rest. Since you still have to work, is it possible to use your other, non-dominant arm for a few days? I know it will probably seem spasmodic at first, but with a little practice you should be able to do it pretty well by the end of a shift.
posted by netbros at 8:18 PM on June 11, 2008

If you can get work to pay for you to see a doctor, that is great, but my experience with a similar problem while having great health insurance, workplace ergonomics, specialists, therapists, and all that, is that really probably the best thing they can tell you to do is "stop doing that". The second best thing would be showing you how to do it without hurting yourself.
On the plus side, while many people seem to freak out at the mere idea of ever feeling pain due to repetitive strain, in my experience as long as you are not foolishly pushing through it hard and making it worse, it is pretty unlikely you are causing yourself permanent damage. If you don't have great health insurance you're likely to get told to take ibuprofen and rest/ice it. That does definitely help, because, as I understand it, a lot of the pain/numbness is due to swelling causing a pinching of the nerve. Trigger point massage can also be amazing for this problem, but that probably should be done by a physical therapist.
posted by ch1x0r at 8:30 PM on June 11, 2008

The sort of doctor you need to see is an orthopedist.
If it's tendonitis or any sort of RSI, you really do want to change jobs as soon as possible. If it gets bad it can take months or years, not weeks, to heal.
Meanwhile, ice your elbow as much as possible (10-15 minutes per hour) and take ibuprofen (the maximum amount) to reduce inflammation. But as scblackman said, that's usually not a solution even if it makes you feel better. Apart from the optimistic timeframe, everything he said is right on.

Sorry if this sounds scary. I'm just already past the year mark with RSI and it makes life bloody hard.
posted by egg drop at 8:37 PM on June 11, 2008

I hurt myself on a job a while back. I had insurance, but once I reported the injury to my supervisor, all the costs were borne by work, not by me. This is what workman's comp is for. Do talk to your supervisor and/or the relevant HR people.
posted by rtha at 8:50 PM on June 11, 2008

Response by poster: It does sound scary.

Am I entitled to workers compensation if it is a part-time job that doesn't provide health insurance? Does worker's comp just happen or is it something that I would have had to file paperwork for earlier?
posted by waltzing astronomers at 8:52 PM on June 11, 2008

This is definitely a legitimate workers comp. claim. I know that as a part time employee with no benefits, a fellow employee was able to get our employer to pay for a work related injury. Just talk to your boss or HR asap.
posted by Sufi at 9:01 PM on June 11, 2008

In addition to the correct "worker's comp" points above, you may want to return to work sometime.

That would be a great time to learn your skills left-handed (or using whichever is your sub hand).

It'll be awful at first, but you'll learn and then you'll be ultra-cool.
posted by rokusan at 9:29 PM on June 11, 2008

This would happen to me when I was a barista; I would switch hands for things. I'm left handed though, so I've been accustomed to switching hands, but it's really not that hard to tamp and lock in a portafilter with the other hand (and though it takes some force for a proper tamp, you shouldn't have to be that hard on the portafilter, unless the seals are bad).

Also see a doctor.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:47 PM on June 11, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you for all of the answers. I will talk to my boss at work today, and pass shot pulling responsibilities onto a coworker.
posted by waltzing astronomers at 4:38 AM on June 12, 2008

OK, don't just talk to them, give them notice IN WRITING as well. I know it seems ultra-formal but it's important.

Good luck!
posted by sondrialiac at 8:53 AM on June 12, 2008

Response by poster: I told my manager about the elbow pain, and thus far I have been assisted in rearranging my work schedule so that I do not have to operate the espresso machine, at least in the immediate future. I have not brought up workers comp yet, because I feel that I should discuss that with the owner of the shop before the manager. Unfortunately, the owner is out of town at the moment. As I type this, I do not know exactly when he will return, but I assume that he will be back sometime next week, hopefully within the next couple of days. Should I send him an email? If so, should I merely describe the symptoms of my injury and express my desire to stay away from the espresso machine for the foreseeable future? Or should I also broach the topic of workers compensation? Or should I wait until he is back in town so that I can talk to him in person and present him with an actual piece of paper on which I have detailed my symptoms? My manager, unprompted, suggested that I look into visiting the local low income health clinic. Obviously she did not mention workers comp.
posted by waltzing astronomers at 10:09 AM on June 15, 2008

Send him an email with the same thing you'd send him with paper. Additionally, give your supervisor the information about your injury on paper.

There is a time limit within which you must notify your manager about your injury, after which worker's comp becomes unavailable to you. Obviously this varies by state. You don't have to mention the words "worker's comp" for you to be entitled to it.

Additionally, in some states you must see a doctor that your employer chooses, or you won't be eligible for benefits. I would contact your local legal aid at this point.
posted by sondrialiac at 11:28 AM on June 15, 2008

You need to discuss worker's comp with your manager. There is a time period in which you must report an injury; your manager should have access to the forms you need to fill out. The sooner you are taken care of, the sooner you will be able to perform all duties again.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:36 AM on June 16, 2008

As a thought - if you have access to someone who is good at massage (and by which I mean has had training) get them to poke around the T4 area of your back. Be cautions, though - do not do this while on painkillers, as it's important for you to provide accurate feedback.

I have RSI which sounds similar to yours (the sort-of-hit-funnybone feeling, tingling progressing to pinky finger) when I'm tense between my shoulderblades. In my case, as a computer worker, it's caused by mouse use (oh, and stress, because I'm a tense sort of person).

For temporary pain relief, try a heatpack on your back. It can help relax the muscles somewhat, and can provide a temporary alleviation of pain. I find it works better than ibuprofen and codiene, although of course, YMMV. Topical ibuprofen has also proven effective in the past, at times.
posted by ysabet at 9:20 PM on June 17, 2008

IAABarista. If the OP is still watching this thread, I have some advice as far as tamping technique to lessen the discomfort.

First, hold the tamper out in front of you, gripping it as you would a doorknob (keeping the wrist straight).
Then, bend your elbow and when tamping keep your forearm at a 45° to your upper arm.
The "work" is done more with the upper body through the shoulder. Using the proper form you shouldn't feel any strain in the wrist or elbow. The "barista wrist/elbow" was quite common in my coffeeshops until we learned this trick.

Please memail me if this was not at all coherent. I, myself, would likely need a video/live demonstration to truly comprehend such instruction :-)
posted by eiramazile at 8:27 PM on June 21, 2008

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