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Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome is numbness, tingling, weakness, and pain in your hand, wrist, and sometimes forearm. It is caused by pressure on the median nerve. This nerve and several tough tissues called tendons run through a space in the wrist. This space is called the carpal tunnel.

The repeated hand motions used in work and some hobbies and sports can put pressure on the median nerve. Pregnancy can cause carpal tunnel syndrome. Several conditions, such as diabetes, arthritis, and an underactive thyroid, can also cause it.

You may be able to limit an activity or change the way you do it to reduce your symptoms. You also can take other steps to feel better. If your symptoms are mild, 1 to 2 weeks of home treatment are likely to ease your pain. Surgery is needed only if other treatments do not work.

What are the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome?

Mild carpal tunnel symptoms most often affect the hand and sometimes the forearm, but they can spread up to the shoulder. Symptoms include:

  • Numbness or pain in your hand, forearm, or wrist that wakes you up at night. (Shaking or moving your fingers may ease this numbness and pain.)
  • Occasional tingling, numbness, "pins-and-needles" sensation, or pain. The feeling is similar to your hand "falling asleep."
  • Numbness or pain that gets worse while you use your hand or wrist. You are most likely to feel it when you grip an object with your hand or bend (flex) your wrist.
  • Occasional aching pain in your forearm between your elbow and wrist.
  • Stiffness in your fingers when you get up in the morning.

With moderate or severe carpal tunnel symptoms, you may have numbness or reduced strength and grip in your fingers, thumb, or hand. It may be hard to:

  • Do simple hand movements, such as brushing your hair or holding a fork. You may accidentally drop objects.
  • Pinch an object between your thumb and first finger. (This is called loss of pinch strength.)
  • Use your thumb while doing simple tasks such as opening a jar or using a screwdriver. With long-term carpal tunnel syndrome, the thumb muscles can get smaller and weaker (atrophy).

Symptoms most often occur in parts of the hand supplied by the median nerve. These are the thumb, the index finger, the middle finger, and half of the ring finger. The median nerve doesn't affect your little finger. So if your little finger is affected, you may not have carpal tunnel syndrome.

Symptoms often occur in both hands, but they are usually worse in one hand than the other. You may first notice symptoms at night. People with carpal tunnel syndrome can usually fall asleep, but pain or numbness may wake them up.

Not all pain in the wrist or hand is caused by carpal tunnel syndrome. There are many other conditions with similar symptoms, such as:

  • An injury to the muscles, ligaments, tendons, or bones.
  • Nerve problems in the fingers, elbow, or neck.
  • Arthritis in the thumb joint or wrist.
How can you prevent carpal tunnel syndrome?

To prevent carpal tunnel syndrome, take care of your basic health. Stay at a healthy weight. Don't smoke. Exercise to stay strong and flexible. If you have a long-term health problem, such as arthritis or diabetes, follow your doctor's advice for managing your condition.

You can also try to take good care of your wrists and hands.

  • When you're doing something with your hands, keep your wrists straight, or only slightly bent, and in line with your arms.
  • Use your whole hand—not just your fingers—to hold objects.
  • If you can, switch hands often when you repeat movements.
  • Take breaks often, and rest your hands.
  • Avoid activities that bend or twist the wrists for long periods of time.
  • Stop any activity that causes numbness or pain in your fingers, hands, or wrists.
What causes carpal tunnel syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when a combination of health conditions and activities puts pressure on the median nerve. The median nerve passes through the carpal tunnel in your wrist. This pressure leads to symptoms.

Anything that decreases the amount of space in the carpal tunnel or increases the amount of tissue in the tunnel can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. So can anything that makes the median nerve more sensitive.

Things that help cause carpal tunnel syndrome include:

  • Conditions or illnesses that can cause or contribute to arm pain or swelling in the joints and soft tissues in the arm, or to reduced blood flow to the hands. These include obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, pregnancy, diabetes, and hypothyroidism.
  • Repeated hand and wrist movements. They can cause the membranes around the tendons to swell (tenosynovitis).
  • Broken wrist bones, dislocated bones, new bone growth from healing bones, or bone spurs. These can take up space in the carpal tunnel and put more pressure on the median nerve.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common work-related condition. It can be caused by work that requires:

  • Forceful or repetitive hand movements.
  • Hand-arm vibration.
  • Working for long periods in the same or awkward positions.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is even more likely if you have these work-related issues along with other health conditions.

In some cases the cause of carpal tunnel syndrome can't be found.

What increases your risk for carpal tunnel syndrome?

Things that put you at risk for carpal tunnel syndrome include:

  • Health problems that can cause arm pain, swelling in the joints and soft tissues in the arm, or reduce the blood flow to the hands. These include obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, pregnancy, diabetes, and hypothyroidism.
  • Being female or pregnant. Those who are near the end of their pregnancies often have short-term symptoms.
  • Hand and wrist activities that require repeated motions, especially in awkward positions.
  • Smoking. It can affect blood flow to the median nerve in your wrist.
  • Broken wrist bones, dislocated bones, new bone growth from healing bones, or bone spurs. These can take up space in the carpal tunnel and put more pressure on the median nerve.
How is carpal tunnel syndrome diagnosed?

To diagnose carpal tunnel syndrome, your doctor will ask if you have any health problems, such as arthritis, hypothyroidism, or diabetes. The doctor may ask if you are pregnant. The doctor will ask if you recently hurt your wrist, arm, or neck. Your doctor will want to know about your daily routine and any recent activities that could have hurt your wrist.

During the exam, your doctor will check the feeling, strength, and appearance of your neck, shoulders, arms, wrists, and hands. The doctor may suggest having tests, such as:

  • Nerve testing to check the median nerve.
  • An ultrasound to look at the size of the median nerve.
  • An MRI to find out what is putting pressure on the median nerve.
  • Blood tests to check for a thyroid problem, rheumatoid arthritis, or other conditions.
How is carpal tunnel syndrome treated?

Treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome is based on how serious it is, if there is any nerve damage, and if other treatment has helped.

If your symptoms are mild, home treatment for 1 to 2 weeks is likely to relieve your symptoms. Try these tips.

  • Wear a wrist splint.
  • Stop or change activities that cause numbness and pain.
  • Ice your wrist.
  • Try nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for pain.

Corticosteroids may treat the swelling of the nerve and your pain. They can be taken in pill form or injected into the wrist by a doctor. Physical therapy or occupational therapy is sometimes used.

Surgery is an option. But it's mostly used only when symptoms are so bad that you can't work or do other things even after several weeks to months of other treatment.

The sooner you start treatment, the better your chances are to stop symptoms and prevent long-term damage to the nerve.

What types of surgery are used to treat carpal tunnel syndrome?

Surgery may be an option when other treatment hasn't helped, if you've had carpal tunnel syndrome for a long time, or if there's nerve damage or the risk of nerve damage.

The most common surgery for relieving carpal tunnel symptoms involves cutting the transverse carpal ligament. This helps relieve pressure on the median nerve in the wrist. Two approaches for this surgery may be used. They are:

  • Open carpal tunnel release surgery. This requires a longer recovery time and leaves a larger scar than endoscopic surgery. But there may be less chance of other problems, like nerve damage or the need for a second surgery.
  • Endoscopic carpal tunnel release surgery. Recovery is quicker than with open surgery. The scars heal sooner. They're smaller and tend to be less painful than they are in open release surgery. But there may be a slightly higher chance of needing another surgery later.

Some surgeons are now doing small- or mini-open release surgery. This requires a smaller incision than standard open release surgery. It may reduce healing time and scarring. It also allows the surgeon to view the ligament directly during the surgery. This helps to minimize danger to the nerve.

Your decision about whether to use open or endoscopic surgery may depend on your doctor's experience with the procedures. Endoscopic carpal tunnel surgery uses special equipment. It's most successful when the doctor has done the procedure many times.

How are medicines used to treat carpal tunnel syndrome?

Medicine may relieve swelling, inflammation, and pain in the wrist or hand caused by carpal tunnel syndrome. Reducing swelling in the wrist will relieve pressure on the median nerve in the carpal tunnel. This helps relieve your symptoms.

Medicine choices include:

  • Corticosteroids. These are powerful anti-inflammatory medicines. They can be used on their own or along with a wrist splint. Corticosteroids can be taken in pill form or injected into the wrist by a doctor.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These medicines can help relieve pain and reduce swelling. Studies haven't shown NSAIDs to be effective for carpal tunnel syndrome, but they may help relieve your symptoms. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label. Do not take NSAIDs if you are taking corticosteroids.

What to think about

Medicine should be used with other treatments (such as ice, rest, and splints) to reduce pain and inflammation.

Corticosteroids often give temporary relief for several weeks or more. Injected corticosteroids usually give longer-lasting results than those taken by mouth (oral). But oral or injected medicines rarely give permanent relief from carpal tunnel symptoms.