Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common condition that affects about five percent of the population. The carpal tunnel is the narrow passageway in the wrist where the median nerve, which gives sensory and motor function to the fingers of the hand, passes. Compression of the nerve through repetitive work using the hand and wrist can lead to inflammation, causing symptoms such as tingling, numbness, pain, and weakening of the hand. In most cases, symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome improve with simple home remedies, but some people may need carpal tunnel surgery.
What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Carpal tunnel syndrome describes a group of symptoms that occur when the median nerve, which controls the movements and sensations of the fingers (except the little finger), is pressed repeatedly or constantly. Compression of the nerve and other structures in the carpal tunnel causes irritation to the structures, leading to swelling and thickening. These result in tingling, numbness and pain, which may be felt in the hand and up to the forearm and shoulder. Prolonged damage to the nerve may result in weakness of the arm and hand. Carpal tunnel syndrome is the most common type of nerve damage involving nerve entrapment (neuropathy).
What Are the Symptoms of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Common symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include:
- Prickling sensation. This is usually the first symptom to develop when a nerve is trapped or compressed. The tingling or pins-and-needles sensation may also be described as a burning feeling in the second (index) finger and third (middle) fingers, which are usually affected first. The thumb may also be affected.
- Pain. With time, the fingers may feel pain, which may radiate to the forearm and up the shoulder.
- Numbness. The fingers and the palm may become numb.
- Skin dryness. The skin over the affected areas may become dry.
- Muscle weakness. Some muscles of the fingers may become weak with worsening nerve damage, causing a weak grip and muscle wasting near your thumb.
Symptoms may vary from mild to intense, and they may be recurring. Your symptoms may become more intense at night, causing you to wake up. They may be temporarily relieved by moving the wrist or arm, but they may persist without proper treatment.
When to See a Doctor
Consult a doctor if you suspect you have symptoms of median nerve compression, especially if they affect your normal activities and disrupt your sleep. If left untreated, permanent nerve damage and muscle weakness can occur.
What Are the Causes of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Chronic inflammation around the median nerve in the wrist, which leads to excess pressure on the nerve leads to carpal tunnel syndrome. You may develop it from overextension or repeated wrist motions, which may occur due to:
- Poor wrist positioning while using a computer mouse or keyboard
- Chronic exposure to vibration from power tools or hand tools
- Repeated wrist movement that involves over-extension of the joint (eg. Typing or playing a piano)
Inflammation in your wrist may also be related to some underlying health condition that triggers swelling in the wrist or obstruction of blood flow to the hand, such as:
- Thyroid dysfunction
- High blood pressure
- Fluid retention related to pregnancy/menopause
- Rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune disorders
Who Is at Risk?
You have an increased risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome if:
- You are a woman.
- You are 30 to 60 years old.
- You have certain medical conditions (diabetes, arthritis, and other diseases listed above).
- You engage in certain lifestyle factors, including smoking, sedentary lifestyle, high salt consumption.
- You are obese.
- Your occupation or job requires repetitive movement of the wrist (manufacturing, construction work, assembly line work, keyboarding occupations, etc.)
What Are the Treatments for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Mild symptoms may improve with one to two weeks of home treatment. Your goals are to achieve normal hand and wrist function and to prevent further nerve damage and muscle weakness in the hand. Your options include:
- Home treatment, includes taking short breaks from repetitive hand and wrist activities, avoiding overextension of your wrist, wearing wrist splints, avoiding pressure on your hands while sleeping, or modifying activities.
- Physical therapy, includes stretching your fingers, rotating your wrists, doing range-of-motion exercises, and ultrasound treatment.
- Medications, such as taking a pain reliever, such non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (ex. ibuprofen or naproxen). Sometimes, corticosteroid injections may be prescribed.
- Carpal tunnel surgery, when other treatments are not effective in relieving symptoms.
Watch the video below to learn some yoga exercises for carpal tunnel syndrome:
How to Prevent Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Here are some measures to reduce your risk of suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome:
- When doing manual tasks with a hand tool or device, avoid gripping too hard or using more force than is needed.
- Avoid over-bending your wrist and aim for a neutral position. Work with straightened wrists and avoid repeated bending of the wrists.
- Maintain good body posture to avoid placing undue strain on your wrist and hand.
- Have a good workstation design to reduce awkward or unnatural wrist positions.
- Take frequent breaks when performing manual tasks to prevent long-term effects, especially if these tasks are done repetitively or frequently.
- Avoid cold work environments, which can increase your risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome. Keep your hands warm by wearing gloves if your work environment is too cold.
- Get treatment for an underlying condition such as diabetes, to prevent complications such as nerve damage.