The carpal tunnel is a narrow passageway in the wrist formed by bones and ligaments. The median nerve is responsible for controlling sensations in the palm and fingers (except the pinky finger). It passes through the carpal tunnel. When the tunnel narrows due to inflammation, swelling or other factors, it presses on the median nerve. This leads to carpal tunnel syndrome, a common condition that affects up to 10 million people in the United States.
Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome
Carpal tunnel syndrome can cause a variety of symptoms due to compressing the median nerve. These symptoms can develop gradually and can range from mild to severe. Common symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include:
- Numbness or tingling — Carpal tunnel syndrome can cause numbness and tingling sensations in the thumb, index finger, middle finger, and the thumb side of the ring finger. These sensations can happen while holding a steering wheel, phone or newspaper. It can also happen when the wrist is flexed for an extended period of time.
- Pain or discomfort — People with carpal tunnel may experience pain or aching in their wrist, hand or forearm. This pain can sometimes radiate up the arm. The pain is often worse at night and can disrupt sleep.
- Weakness — People may experience weakness in the hand and have a tendency to drop objects. This can be due to the loss of strength in the affected hand muscles. Grip strength may also be diminished. This can make it challenging to do tasks that use fine motor skills, like buttoning shirts or using small tools.
- Burning sensation — Some people with carpal tunnel syndrome experience a burning sensation in their hands or fingers. This sensation can be persistent or intermittent.
Suppose you are experiencing any of these symptoms, especially if they are affecting your quality of life. In that case, it’s important to consult with a health care professional for proper diagnosis and treatment. Early intervention can help prevent the progression of carpal tunnel syndrome.
Common causes of carpal tunnel syndrome
Carpal tunnel syndrome can be caused by a variety of factors including:
- Repetitive hand motions — Using repetitive hand and wrist motions that involve flexing or extending the wrist can help contribute to the development of carpal tunnel syndrome. Occupations or activities that require prolonged or repetitive typing, using vibrating tools, or assembly line work can increase the risk.
- Hand and wrist positions — Awkward or unnatural hand positions during activities like typing or using a mouse can put pressure on the median nerve. Poor ergonomic workstation setups can exacerbate these awkward positions.
- Anatomy of the wrist — Some people may have a smaller carpal tunnel. This leaves less space for the median nerve. Those with smaller carpal tunnels may be more susceptible to developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Trauma or injury — Wrist injuries, fractures or dislocations can cause swelling. This swelling can lead to increased pressure on the median nerve and cause carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms.
- Medical conditions — Certain conditions, like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and thyroid disorders, can contribute to median nerve compression.
- Pregnancy — Pregnancy-related hormonal changes and fluid retention can cause swelling in the carpal tunnel. Carpal tunnel symptoms during pregnancy can be common and usually resolve after childbirth.
- Obesity — Excess body weight can increase pressure on the median nerve. This can contribute to the development or worsening of symptoms.
- Genetics — Carpal tunnel syndrome can run in families. There could be a genetic predisposition to the condition.
Using proper hand and wrist ergonomics and taking regular breaks during repetitive activities is important. These can help reduce your risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome or help alleviate symptoms.
Ways to help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome
While it might not be possible to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome entirely, some strategies can help minimize the risk and help ease symptoms:
- Maintaining proper ergonomics — Make sure that your workspace is ergonomically designed. Natural hand positions can help reduce strain and prevent carpal tunnel syndrome. This can include learning proper techniques when doing activities that require repetitive hand movements.
- Taking regular breaks — If your work involves repetitive hand movements, it’s important to take regular breaks. These breaks allow your hands and wrists to rest.
- Stretching exercises — Wrist and hand stretches can help improve flexibility and reduce muscle and tendon tension.
- Managing health conditions — Managing underlying health conditions can help reduce the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome.
Beneficial treatments for preventing or helping carpal tunnel syndrome
There are several effective treatments available to help prevent or manage carpal tunnel syndrome. These treatments can range from conservative to more invasive and can include:
- Wrist splints — Wearing a wrist splint, especially at night, can help keep your wrist in a neutral position. This can help relieve pressure on the median nerve.
- Medications — Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen can help to reduce inflammation and alleviate pain. Corticosteroid injections into the carpal tunnel can provide temporary relief by reducing inflammation around the median nerve.
- Physical therapy — Physical therapy offers a noninvasive and effective approach to help manage or prevent carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Yoga and stretching — Yoga and specific stretching exercises can help improve wrist and hand flexibility. They can also help to reduce tension.
- Hand exercises — Performing specific hand exercises using therapy putty or stress balls can help improve grip strength and flexibility in your fingers and wrists. This can help reduce discomfort.
- Surgery (carpal tunnel release) — When conservative treatments fail to provide relief, your doctor may recommend carpal tunnel release surgery. During this procedure, a surgeon cuts the ligament pressing against the median nerve. This helps to relieve the median nerve compression. This surgery can be done traditionally or endoscopically.
Don’t let carpal tunnel syndrome keep you from enjoying life to the fullest
Lattimore Physical Therapy can help you find relief from the discomfort and limitations caused by carpal tunnel syndrome. Our experienced team of physical therapists understands the complexities of carpal tunnel syndrome and is dedicated to helping you on your path to recovery. We can help you alleviate pain, regain functionality, and boost your well-being.
Contact our team today for more information or to schedule an initial appointment.