Often characterized by numbness and tingling sensations in the hand and wrist, carpal tunnel syndrome is an orthopedic condition that affects anywhere from 4-10 million Americans. Frequently triggered by movement, the resulting discomfort stems from irritation of the median nerve in the wrist. It’s a condition that typically gets worse over time with no attention, so early diagnosis and treatment is important.
What Causes Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by pressure on the median nerve and the nine tendons (flexor tendons) that run between the hand and the forearm. The condition is so-named because it affects a space in the wrist referred to as the “carpal tunnel.” Swelling and irritation of these tissues may be caused by making the same hand or wrist motions, as is the case with keyboard typing. Pregnancy and chronic conditions such as arthritis and diabetes may also cause nerve irritation in the hands. Symptoms associated with carpal tunnel syndrome include:
- Tingling and numbness primary affecting the thumb, middle, and index fingers
- “Electric shock” sensations in the other fingers plus the thumb
- Weakness in the affected hand that may make it difficult to grip or hold items
- Numbness that comes and go at first and eventually becomes more constant
How is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Diagnosed?
The process of diagnosing carpal tunnel syndrome often starts with a physical exam. This may include testing sensations in fingers and looking for signs of atrophy in muscles that support the hand and wrist. Tests performed may include electrophysiological tests to evaluate the median nerve, nerve conduction studies to measure nerve signals between the arm and hand, X-rays and MRIs, and an EMG (electromyogram) to measure electrical activity in muscles.
What Are Possible Treatment Options?
Initial treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome is usually conservative, such as modifying activities that seem to trigger the pain, applying ice to the wrist for 10-15 minutes at a time throughout the day, wearing a wrist split at night, and taking anti-inflammatory medications. Treatment may also involve:
- Oral or injectable corticosteroids
- Nerve gliding exercises
- Open or endoscopic (less invasive) carpal tunnel release surgery to relieve pressure on the median nerve
Minimize your risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome by maintaining good overall health. Performing finger stretches after you finish typing or texting may also help maintain flexibility. Also make an effort to use hand and wrist motions as evenly as possible and avoid awkward bends or twists and prolonged repetitious movements.