Maybe you’ve known someone who had carpal tunnel syndrome, or you’ve heard about it somewhere. But would you know if you were experiencing the symptoms?
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common orthopedic condition, affecting about 3 percent of women and 2 percent of men during the course of their lifetime. It’s most common among women older than age 55.
The condition causes discomfort, numbness and tingling in the upper extremities, including the hands and the arms. It occurs when the median nerve is compressed as it travels through the wrist.
But how can you know if what you’re experiencing is carpal tunnel syndrome? Read on as we take a look at the condition.
Understanding the anatomy related to carpal tunnel syndrome
Pressure on the median nerve causes carpal tunnel syndrome. You might be wondering what the median nerve is. It’s one of the main nerves in the hand and originates as nerve roots in the neck.
These nerve roots merge together to form a single nerve in the arm that passes through the arm and forearm, through the carpal tunnel, and into the hand. The median nerve is responsible for feelings in the thumb, index, middle and ring fingers and also controls the muscles at the base of the thumb.
In addition to the median nerve, nine “flexor tendons” that bend the fingers and thumb also travel through the carpal tunnel.
The problem occurs when that nerve is compressed as it passes through the carpal tunnel. The carpal tunnel is just what it sounds like — a narrow passage (or tunnel) in the wrist. This tunnel is only about an inch in width.
Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs if the carpal tunnel narrows or if the tissues surrounding the flexor tendons swell, which puts pressure on the median nerve.
The symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome
We’ve already mentioned that carpal tunnel syndrome often causes pain, numbness and tingling in the fingers, hands and arms. But if you have the syndrome, you may experience slightly different sensations.
Some people report feeling burning or itching in the hands. These feelings are most often noticed in the palm of the hand and in the fingers, particularly in the thumb, index and middle fingers. Others experience a feeling of swelling in the fingers, even if no swelling is visible to the eye.
People who experience carpal tunnel syndrome often first notice the symptoms at night. That’s because many people flex their wrists as they sleep, which can cause the condition to worsen.
As symptoms worsen, a person will also likely notice tingling and decreased grip strength during the daytime. Pain and tingling may be consistent, or they may radiate as sensations up the fingers.
Who’s at risk for carpal tunnel syndrome?
Anyone can develop carpal tunnel syndrome. But women and older adults are at the greatest risk. In fact, women are three times as likely to develop the condition, most likely because the carpal tunnel itself is smaller in women.
Other risk factors include:
- Certain medical conditions that impact the nerves, including thyroid disorders, arthritis and diabetes
- Jobs or hobbies that require repetitive hand movements, particularly if the wrist is bent
- Heredity, which may include anatomical differences in the carpal tunnel
- Jobs or hobbies that requires extreme flexion of the hand or wrist
- Pregnancy, which can cause swelling
If you’re experiencing symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, visit your doctor. He or she will talk with you about what you’re feeling and what your normal daily routine looks like.
The doctor will also do a physical exam to check the feeling, strength and appearance of your entire upper body, including your neck, shoulders, arms, wrists, hands and fingers. Certain tests can be performed to gauge whether the median nerve is affected.
Treatment options for carpal tunnel syndrome
In many cases, carpal tunnel syndrome can be resolved with non-surgical treatments, including splinting (which is often worn at night), the avoidance of contributing activities, over-the-counter or prescription medications, and even alternative therapies like strength training or yoga.
If the symptoms don’t resolve with non-surgical treatments, your doctor may recommend a carpal tunnel release. This procedure is one of the most common surgical procedures in the United States, and it involves severing a ligament around the wrist to reduce pressure on the nerve.
How to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome
While you can’t eliminate risk factors like medical conditions or heredity, you can take steps to make carpal tunnel syndrome less likely.
If you have a job or hobby that requires repetitive hand movements or flexion of the hand or wrist, take frequent breaks and switch hands often. Keep your wrists in a neutral position and use your entire hand to hold objects, rather than just the fingers.
If you type frequently, be sure to keep your wrists straight and your hands a little higher than your wrists.
If you believe you may have carpal tunnel syndrome, your doctor can perform tests to determine if the condition is causing your symptoms. Need a doctor? Find one here.