Carpal tunnel syndrome causes numbness, tingling and pain in the hand, wrist and arm. It is a common, irritating and sometimes even painful condition. Early diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome may improve effectiveness of treatment.
What is carpal tunnel?
Carpal tunnel syndrome is named for the carpal tunnel, which is the narrow passageway (or tunnel) at the base of the hand that protects nerves and tendons that go to the hand and fingers. Carpal tunnel syndrome is the result of a pinched median nerve in the carpal tunnel. Compression of this nerve causes the numbness, tingling and other symptoms such as pain and weakness in the hand.
What causes carpal tunnel?
Anything crowding, compressing or irritating the carpal tunnel can lead to the development of carpal tunnel syndrome. Some factors that can contribute to carpal tunnel syndrome include: underlying health problems (particularly inflammatory conditions), overuse or poor posture and ergonomics of hand use and the anatomy of the wrist. In many cases, carpal tunnel syndrome is a combination of multiple factors affecting the carpal tunnel and median nerve.
How is carpal tunnel treated?
No matter how minor or severe the symptoms, carpal tunnel should be treated as early as possible. Mild carpal tunnel can be treated with rest, cold packs on the wrist and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, to reduce inflammation. Stretching the palms and fingers and rotating the wrists may also be beneficial.
If these techniques do not help, a wrist splint to stabilize the wrist and hand may provide relief from symptoms of mild to moderate carpal tunnel syndrome that have been present for less than 10 months.
If these treatments do not provide relief from symptoms, your doctor may inject the carpal tunnel with a corticosteroid, such as cortisone, to relieve pressure on the median nerve.
Severe or persistent carpal tunnel syndrome may be treated with surgery. During the surgical procedure, the ligament pressing on the median nerve is cut to relieve pressure on the nerve.
Can carpal tunnel be prevented?
There is no clear, proven strategy to prevent carpal tunnel, but you may be able to reduce your risk by taking these precautions:
- Relax your grip and reduce the force used to complete manual tasks, such as writing.
- Give your hands a break. Frequent breaks and gentle stretching can help relieve pressure on the median nerve.
- Watch your posture and form. Your wrists should always be in a relaxed position. If they are bending down or constantly tense, you may be putting unnecessary pressure on the carpal tunnel and the median nerve. If you spend much of your day on a computer, be sure your keyboard is at elbow height or slightly lower. Keep good posture, with your shoulders rolled back and muscles relaxed.
- Stay warm. Cold hands are more likely to develop pain and stiffness. If your office is constantly cold, try wearing fingerless gloves to help keep your hands warm.
Carpal tunnel can be irritating and even painful, but it is easily treated with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, rest, stretching and surgery when needed. If you have been experiencing constant pain, numbness, tingling or weakness in your fingers, hand, wrist or arm, make an appointment with your doctor to determine if your symptoms might be a sign of carpal tunnel syndrome.