What You Need to Know About Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
What's Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Carpal tunnel syndrome develops when the median nerve gets squeezed near the wrist. The median nerve runs along the length of the arm to the palm, inside of the carpal tunnel. When the nerve is squeezed, or compressed, you can feel tingling and numbness in your wrists and hands. Your hands might also feel weak.
About 50 out of every 1,000 people in the U.S. deals with carpal tunnel syndrome.1 Knowing what causes the problem and what you can do to treat or prevent it can help you maintain the health of your wrists and hands.
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What Causes Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Pressure on the median nerve leads to carpal tunnel syndrome. The pressure can develop for various reasons. Often, a combination of factors contribute to the condition.
The carpal tunnel measures about an inch wide. Wrist bones, called carpal bones, make up the sides and floor of the tunnel. Stretching over the top of the tunnel is the transverse carpal ligament, a band of connective tissue. Along with the nerve, there are also flexor tendons inside the tunnel.
If those tendons swell or become inflamed, they can squeeze the nerve. Factors that can lead to inflammation include conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, injury to the wrist, and hormone imbalances. People with diabetes or an underactive thyroid have a high risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
Certain repetitive movements, such as typing or using certain types of tools, can also contribute to carpal tunnel syndrome.
The condition can also be more likely to develop in some people because of the size of their wrists. If a person has narrow wrists or another trait that affects the size of their carpal tunnel, their median nerves might be more likely to become compressed.
What Are the Symptoms of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
The symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome often start out mild and become worse over time. Many people first notice symptoms such as tingling and numbness in their wrists at night. Usually, the dominant hand shows symptoms first. People with carpal tunnel often describe the tingling like an electric shock.
The numbness and tingling may be more likely to be present during activities that require the use of the hands, such as holding a phone, driving, or holding a book.
Weakness is another symptom. When the hands are weak, it's difficult to grasp items or pick things up.
What Can You Do to Treat Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Your treatment options for carpal tunnel syndrome depend on its severity. Mild, early-stage cases can often be treated without surgery. You might wear a splint on one or both wrists.
Your doctor might recommend that you avoid the activities that seem to trigger the condition, such as typing. If you can't fully avoid certain activities, taking frequent breaks will help relieve symptoms.
Certain medications, such as ibuprofen, can help relieve discomfort and reduce inflammation. A corticosteroid injection can also reduce inflammation and provide relief from your symptoms.
Surgery might be needed if the discomfort and weakness persist. The most common surgical treatment is carpal tunnel release, which cuts the transverse ligament to relieve pressure on the nerve.
Can You Prevent Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
While there isn't a guaranteed way to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome, there are steps you can take to reduce strain on the wrists.2
Pay attention to how you use your hands and wrists, particularly when performing everyday activities. If you type a lot for work, try to strike the keys more gently to reduce strain on the wrists. If you hold objects, such as a tool or a pen, frequently, grip them lightly. Tools or pens that have soft, gel grips will be more comfortable to use and will reduce strain.
Your posture can also help you reduce wrist strain. When you slouch, it puts additional pressure on certain nerves, including the median nerve. Make sure any furniture, such as your work chair and desk, fit your body and allow you to work comfortably with a straight spine.
If you are experiencing numbness and tingling or noticed reduced strength in your hands, even if it's mild, talk to your family physician. They can take imaging and more closely examine your wrists and give you an accurate diagnosis.
1. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, National Library of Medicine Stat Pearls, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448179/
2. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Fact Sheet, National Institute of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke, https://www.ninds.nih.gov/carpal-tunnel-syndrome-fact-sheet