If you've experienced hand or wrist pain, you know that something so simple can still affect nearly every aspect of your daily life. That's why it's important to pay attention to the signs and symptoms of common syndromes like carpal tunnel. Even if you've heard of this syndrome before, you can probably still learn a thing or two about preventing and treating this painful condition.
What is carpal tunnel syndrome?
The carpal tunnel is a narrow opening in your wrist that is surrounded by bones and ligaments. The median nerve — which passes through the carpal tunnel — is responsible for the sensory and motor functions of your thumb and three middle fingers. When there is increased pressure on the median nerve it can become compressed and irritated, causing the uncomfortable symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome.
What are the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome?
Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome typically start gradually and worsen over time. Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Weakness in the hand or fingers, making it difficult to grip objects
- Pain or numbness in hand or fingers, which may worsen at night
- "Pins and needles" or "electric shock" sensation in fingers, sometimes traveling up the wrist and arm
What causes carpal tunnel syndrome?
Carpal tunnel syndrome can be caused by anything that squeezes or irritates your median nerve — there is no single proven cause. Instead, it's likely caused by a combination of multiple risk factors, which may include:
- Sex. Carpal tunnel syndrome is approximately four times more common in women than men, which may be due to the fact that their carpal tunnel area is typically smaller. Carpal tunnel syndrome is also common during pregnancy, although symptoms typically improve following birth.
- Bone or joint issues. Problems with the bones or joints in your hand or wrist — such as a sprain, fracture, inflammation or arthritis — can narrow the carpal tunnel area and irritate the median nerve.
- Workplace factors. Jobs that require frequent repetitive movement of the hands and wrists (such as working on an assembly line or at a computer) may put pressure on the median nerve, causing symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. Sports that require similar repetitive flexing of the hands and wrist can also cause median nerve pain.
- Certain medical conditions. Nerve-damaging or inflammatory conditions can damage or put pressure on the median nerve, causing carpal tunnel syndrome. Other medical conditions including thyroid disorders, menopause, lymphedema and kidney failure may also increase your chances of developing the syndrome.
- Other risk factors. Other risk factors that may be associated with carpal tunnel syndrome include obesity, a family history of the syndrome, the use of certain medications (such as anastrozole, which is used to treat breast cancer) and changes in blood sugar levels.
Can you prevent carpal tunnel from getting worse?
While there are currently no strategies proven to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome, there are still things you can do to minimize stress (and therefore pain) on your hands and wrists. Consider trying some of these strategies:
- Take regular breaks. When working with your hands — especially on repetitive or high-force tasks — make sure to take short breaks throughout. This gives you time to gently stretch your hands and wrists before giving them some time to relax. Just a few minutes off every hour can make a big difference!
- Consider anti-inflammatory options. One of the first short-term treatments for carpal tunnel syndrome is the use of anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, which can help reduce any swelling that may be causing nerve pain. You should also consider implementing more natural anti-inflammatory foods — such as berries and fatty fish — into your diet. Learn more about which anti-inflammatory foods you should try (and what to avoid).
- Strengthen with physical therapy. By working with a physical or occupational therapist, you can learn stretching and strengthening exercises that may help improve hand or wrist pain. El Camino Health physical therapy services include ergonomic training, which helps you learn ways to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome pain in the workplace.
What are the treatment options?
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a progressive condition, which means that — without proper care — it can worsen over time. That's why it's important to pay attention to your symptoms and seek treatment early if they don’t improve. If your doctor does diagnose you with carpal tunnel syndrome, take heart — there are options to improve your symptoms! If lifestyle changes don't improve your condition, there are surgical options to reduce compression on the median nerve.
If you are experiencing pain in your hand or wrist that doesn't go away despite rest or other lifestyle changes, it's time to talk to a doctor. Luckily, the hand and wrist specialists at El Camino Health are specially trained to help prevent, identify and treat a wide array of hand and wrist conditions including carpal tunnel syndrome.
This article first appeared in the September 2022 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.