Understanding What Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Is

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: Everything You Need to Know

If you suffer from pain, tingling, and numbness in your hand and arm, you may have carpal tunnel syndrome. Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when there is compression or squeezing of the median nerve, which is one of the major nerves that supply the hand.

What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

The carpal tunnel is located on the palm side of your wrist and is a narrow passageway that is surrounded by small bones and strong connective tissues, which limit its tendency to stretch or increase in size.

The median nerve originates in the neck as many small nerves that join in the forearm to form a single nerve. This nerve passes through the arm, the wrist, and into the hand through the carpal tunnel. It is because of this nerve that you are able to feel your thumb, index, middle and the ring finger. Additionally, the median nerve carries the impulse to the muscle going to the thumb.

Swelling of the wrists may lead to the compression of the median nerve. When this happens, you may experience numbness or weakness in the hand in the thumb, index finger, middle finger, and possibly the ring finger; however, the little finger is not affected.

Symptoms of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome results in a few symptoms. These symptoms tend to worsen gradually, and they tend to come and go. However, without adequate treatment, these symptoms may simply get worse and persist for longer periods of time.

Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome may include:

  • Numbness, pain, and tingling particularly in the thumb, index finger, middle finger, and ring finger.
  • The ‘sleeping’ of the hand.
  • A sudden burning sensation that radiates up the arm and into the shoulder.
  • Sudden twinges of pain or shock that travels in the thumb, index, middle and the ring finger.
  • Weakness of the muscles in the hand; you may find it difficult to perform trivial tasks such as picking up a cup of coffee, buttoning your shirt, etc.
  • Dropping objects and not being able to hold things with a firm grip for long periods of time.

Your symptoms may be more prominent at night. This is because many people often sleep in positions that bend their wrists, thereby compressing the median nerve and exacerbating symptoms.

During the day, you may experience symptoms when your wrist is fixed in a certain position that is flexed forwards or extended backward for a long period of time.

How Do You Prevent Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Although there are no guaranteed ways to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome, you can use the following strategies to reduce your risk of this condition:

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  • Do not bend your wrists all the way up or down – try to maintain a neutral wrist position.
  • Always keep your wrist relaxed and reduce the force you apply when holding objects.
  • If working for a long period of time at the computer or writing, take multiple breaks. Use these breaks to move your wrists around and stretch the area to minimize compression on the nerve.
  • Ensure that your keyboard and mouse are at elbow distance to cut down strain on the wrist.

How Do You Get Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

When the tissues and muscles around the median nerve swell, the tunnel becomes narrow and result in unwanted compression of the nerve. This muscle swells because of excess pressure on the wrist.

There are also a few other factors that may lead to carpal tunnel syndrome such as:

  • The position of the wrist – placing your wrist in a stretched or strained position for a prolonged period of time can lead to inflammation of the tendons that applies pressure on the wrist.
  • Pregnancy or menopause – an imbalance of hormones during such times in women may cause swelling as well.
  • Health conditions – diseases such as diabetes, thyroid gland imbalance, rheumatoid arthritis, etc. also increase your risk of carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • Heredity – the carpal tunnel may be narrower in some people. Due to this anatomical difference, there is naturally less space for the median nerve and hence, compression of the nerve. Many members of the same family may experience this issue.

How Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Treated?

There are two methods for carpal tunnel syndrome treatment – non-surgical and surgical options.

Non-surgical treatment options are usually recommended for individuals with mild to moderate carpal tunnel syndrome. This may include the use of:

  • A brace or a splint – wearing a brace or a splint, particularly at night, can help prevent you from bending your wrist while sleeping. With a straightened and relaxed wrist, the pressure applied to the carpal tunnel can be greatly reduced.
  • NSAIDs – Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are used to reduce pain and inflammation of the carpal tunnel.
  • Ice – icing the wrist for 10 to 15 minutes at a time can help to control inflammation and pain.
  • Exercises – specific exercise can be prescribed by a therapist. These exercises allow the median nerve to move freely within the carpal tunnel.

Surgery may be recommended for severe cases, or for those that have not responded to non-surgical options.

During surgery, the ligament that forms the roof of the carpal tunnel is cut, which results in a widening of the tunnel, and therefore more room for the median nerve. This reduces excess pressure on the nerve that was initially causing the pain and numbness.

After the surgery, the ligament may come back together but there will still enough space for the median nerve to move freely.

What to Expect After Carpal Tunnel Surgery?

After carpal tunnel surgery, pain, swelling and stiffness may persist in the wrist, and you might have to wear a brace or a splint for a few weeks. However, minor activities such as driving, personal care, etc. may be allowed.

Normally, complete recovery may take up to a year. After this time you can return to your usual work and activities. It may be recommended to change your work environment to minimize pressure on the wrist that may lead to inflammation of the carpal tunnel.

If you suffer from other conditions causing pain in your wrist such as arthritis, it may take longer to recover. It is also possible that some individuals may not reach complete recovery at all.

The Bottom Line

If you’ve been suffering from numbness, tingling, and pain in your hand and arm, you may very well be suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome.

When symptoms of carpal tunnel first appear, speak to your healthcare practitioner to initiate early treatment. Early intervention is essential to help avoid prolonged or severe symptoms, which can drastically affect your quality of life.

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