A new report describes two cases of poultry workers who developed chronically swollen knuckles, the hallmark sign of a rare skin condition known as pachydermodactyly. Researchers from Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., said the joint swelling as well as pain, itching and burning both men felt in their hands was likely due to repeated injuries to the skin and tissue changes as a result, reports Reuters.
"Although there are not many cases reported, and pachydermodactyly is rare, I believe other poultry workers may have this condition despite the use of protective measures, such as, gloves," dermatologist Dr. Rita Pichardo-Geisinger, one of the study's authors, told Reuters Health in an email.
The cases, she said, were found as part of a larger study on skin disease in more than 500 Latino immigrant poultry workers in western North Carolina.
One of the two workers worked as a chicken catcher, and the other as a chicken hanger. Both men with pachydermodactyly said the swelling in their fingers interfered with their job as well as life outside of work. Along with pain and itching in the hands, they also both reported wrist and shoulder pain. They said that after a few days' rest, most symptoms subsided, but the swelling did not go away.
The current study cannot give an exact estimate of how common pachydermodactyly and related symptoms may be in chicken catchers and hangers.
"It is important to note that the occurrence of pachydermodactyly in only two individuals out of the entire poultry workforce indicates the condition is rare," said a spokesperson for the National Chicken Council, a trade association.
"It is also important to not draw conclusions on such a small sample size especially since the cause of pachydermodactyly is unknown. Without additional medical knowledge of the workers and their individual working conditions, drawing conclusions about the cause of this particular dermatological condition is unfounded."
A spokesperson for the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association added that, "The poultry industry constantly strives to improve the safety of our work environment for our employees."
Both representatives pointed out in emails to Reuters Health that injury and illness rates decreased by 73 percent in poultry processing facilities from 1994 through 2010, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Wearing gloves and rotating jobs may help prevent pachydermodactyly in particular and ease symptoms for people who have already developed it, according to Pichardo-Geisinger.
"But the swelling due to compensatory tissue changes may persist," she added. "The long-term prognosis is deformity of the hands and inability to perform (the) patient's job and daily activities."