Are you experiencing tingling or numbness in your hand and wrist, but are unsure what it is? Is the occasional shooting pain and discomfort a random glitch? Or could it be carpal tunnel syndrome? In a world where many of us work several hours at a desk or engage in repetitive motions as part of our everyday tasks, the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome can certainly be a concern. Here is more information about carpal tunnel syndrome, the symptoms to look out for, and what treatments are available to provide relief.
What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Your carpal tunnel is the narrow passageway that runs from wrist to hand and is made up of tendons, ligaments, and bone. The carpal tunnel has a median nerve passing through it that registers what you feel and sense with your thumb and index and middle fingers. If the surrounding tissue is altered or becomes inflamed, it can cause the carpal tunnel to irritate and put pressure on the median nerve. When this happens, you can feel a tingling and numbing sensation in the areas of your hand and wrist, known as carpal tunnel syndrome.
Carpal Tunnel Symptoms
The first signs you may be dealing with carpal tunnel syndrome are a tingling feeling in your hand and numb sensation in the area of the median nerve including your thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers. You may have the sensation that your hand is asleep or you may drop objects because you can’t quite get a firm grip.
Nighttime may cause the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome to worsen and disrupt sleep. When we sleep and lie horizontal, our wrists may flex, irritating the nerve and causing fluid to accumulate around the wrist and hand.
Carpal tunnel syndrome can be a temporary occurrence that eventually disappears, or it can get more severe with time and adversely affect your home and work life.
Carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms include:
- Itching, tingling, or burning in the fingers or the palm side of the hand
- Inability to get a firm grip to pick up objects
- Intense pain in your wrist or radiating through your arm
- Hand or wrist feels asleep with the need to shake it awake
- A decrease in hand sensitivity to hot and cold temperatures
As carpal tunnel syndrome progresses, you may start to feel a burning or cramping in your wrist, and your hand may begin to gradually lose grip strength. Chronic carpal tunnel syndrome that is left untreated can sometimes cause your hand muscles, particularly in the palm and the base of the thumb, to atrophy and become difficult to use.
What Causes Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
What's causing the pain in your wrist and hand? The excess pressure that has built up on the median nerve. This pressure and inflammation can cause swelling around your wrist, leading to a blockage in blood flow. Some of the most common conditions tied to carpal tunnel syndrome are:
- Fluid retention from pregnancy or menopause
- Fractures or trauma to the wrist
- High blood pressure
- Thyroid dysfunction
- Autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis
If you have a job or do an activity that overextends your wrist repeatedly, symptoms will likely be more intense. When you repeatedly move your wrist, especially in the same motion, it can cause swelling and compression of the median nerve. This may be the result of:
- How you position your wrists while typing on a computer or using a mouse
- Using hand tools or power tools with extreme vibration
- Repeated movements that overextend your wrists (i.e, playing the piano)
Carpal tunnel syndrome can often show up temporarily during pregnancy due to the increased fluid retention and hormone-related swelling that commonly goes along with carrying a baby. It can happen at any point during the 40 weeks of pregnancy, but your chances increase after 32 weeks. Most people see their symptoms resolve within 12 months after delivery.
Who Is at Risk for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Women are 3 times more likely to have carpal tunnel syndrome than men, and it often begins to affect people in their 30s to 60s. Certain conditions like diabetes, arthritis, and high blood pressure increase your risk for developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
If you are a smoker, obese, eat a diet high in salt, or do not exercise, your risk for carpal tunnel syndrome increases. Jobs that involve repetitive wrist movement also boost your chances of developing carpal tunnel syndrome. These occupations include:
- Construction work
- Assembly line work
- Typing and computer work
Diagnosing Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
To diagnose carpal tunnel syndrome, your doctor will assess your medical history, conduct a physical examination of your neck and joints like your wrists, elbows, and shoulders, and look at results from nerve conduction studies.
Many other conditions can mimic carpal tunnel syndrome, so it’s important to rule these out to successfully identify what is going on. Your doctor may look at your wrists for swelling, tenderness, discoloration, and heat. Your physician may do the Tinel test in which he or she taps the front of your wrist to see if you experience a tingling sensation in your hand.
To measure the rate of speed of electrical impulses as they travel down a nerve, a procedure called a nerve conduction velocity test can take a closer look at how your nerve is functioning and reacting. With carpal tunnel syndrome, the impulse will slow as it passes through the carpal tunnel. Along with this test, you may have an electromyogram (EMG) to rule out other conditions causing your symptoms.
Your health care provider may also order blood tests to identify medical conditions associated with carpal tunnel syndrome. Tests that look at your complete blood count, thyroid hormone levels, and blood sugar can help pinpoint the culprit of your discomfort. You may also have an X-ray of your wrist and hand taken to spot any abnormalities of the wrist bones and joints.
Treating Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
The choice of treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome depends on the severity of your symptoms and any underlying disease that might be causing your condition.
If you are experiencing mild symptoms and discomfort, your doctor may suggest resting the hand and wrist, putting your wrist in a wrist splint, and occasionally applying ice to the area. If you have an occupation that worsens your symptoms, you should try to find ways to modify your actions and reduce the motions that aggravate your condition. For example, you may need to adjust your chair height at your desk or the position of the computer keyboard to improve your comfort and decrease strain.
Stretching exercises that help loosen and flex your hands and wrists can help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms from worsening or negatively affecting your day-to-day life. If you have a wrist or hand fracture, an orthopedic specialist will help develop a pain management plan to help minimize your symptoms.
Conditions like rheumatoid arthritis will need to be treated specifically. If you are experiencing wrist swelling and carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms during your pregnancy, they often dissipate after you’ve delivered your baby.
Hand exercises can help relieve your carpal tunnel symptoms. If your condition worsens or you feel pain while performing the following exercises, stop immediately. You may be given exercises specific to your condition that help strengthen the muscles and joints in your hands and wrists and improve overall flexibility and mobility.
- Prayer stretch: With your palms together in a prayer pose, hold them below your chin in front of your chest. Lower your hands slowly toward your midsection while keeping your hands close to your torso and your palms together. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds and repeat several times.
- Wrist flexor stretch: With your palm facing the sky, extend your arm in front of you. Point your fingers backwards toward the floor, feeling the stretch in your wrist. Using your other hand, gently push to increase the bend until you feel a mild stretch in your forearm. Hold for at least 30 seconds; repeat two to four times.
- Wrist extensor: This time, place your palm down while extending your arm in front of you. While pointing your hand toward the floor, slowly bend your wrist. Using your other hand, gently push your wrist to increase the bend until you feel a mild stretch in your forearm. Hold for at least 30 seconds; repeat two to four times.
Massaging your own wrists for several minutes, especially after overuse, can help ease some of your discomfort. Using your opposite thumb, rub your wrist with your palm facing up, moving the pressure back and forth. Since you have muscles in your forearm that control your wrists and hands, also use your thumbs to massage both sides of your forearm, starting at your elbow and moving down to your wrists.
Several types of medications have been used in the treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome. There have been cases in which vitamin B6 has helped relieve symptoms, but how it works remains unclear. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can be used to decrease inflammation and reduce pain, but this may only be a good option for acute cases. Long term use of NSAIDs can cause gastrointestinal issues and stomach ulcers. You should always take these medications with a meal. If you are having stomach issues, let your doctor know.
Corticosteroids are also an option that bring rapid relief and are either taken orally or injected directly into your wrist joint.
Most people with carpal tunnel syndrome improve with noninvasive methods, medications, and exercises. Occasionally, if the pressure on the median nerve becomes persistent, it can lead to constant numbness and weakness. In these severe cases, surgery can help prevent permanent nerve and muscle damage.
During the surgical procedure, called carpal tunnel release, the band of tissue around the wrist (the carpal ligament) is severed to alleviate the pressure on the median nerve. This can be performed using an arthroscope or, in some cases, an open wrist procedure is necessary. Surgery is followed up by physical rehabilitation and an at-home exercise program to strengthen hand and wrist muscles.
Can You Prevent Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
You can prevent carpal tunnel syndrome by making lifestyle changes and avoiding risk factors. Pay closer attention to your posture and how you use your hands during certain activities. It can be very beneficial to modify job tasks that overextend your wrists. It’s also very important to work with your doctors to manage diabetes, high blood pressure, and arthritis to help keep carpal syndrome from developing.
Tackling potential factors that may lead to carpal tunnel syndrome provides a bigger preventative success rate. It’s important to lose weight if necessary and incorporate healthy practices into your life.
Choose foods that help reduce inflammation and encourage healing and regeneration of healthy tissue. A diet that includes amino acids, vitamins, minerals, omega-3 and 6 fatty acids, and probiotics supplies your body with the resources and tools it needs to keep working properly and fight potential issues. Always incorporate fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and adequate amounts of water into your daily routine.
To protect your joints, you must nourish and strengthen your muscles, so activities like resistance exercise and low-impact aerobics are essential in both treating and preventing carpal tunnel syndrome. Also follow the necessary regimen for treating any underlying conditions.
Benefits of Amino Acids
Amino acids are required for the production and maintenance of almost every function and tissue in our bodies. They play critical roles in how our bodies function and are the building blocks of our bones, muscles, and hormones. When looking at managing pain, specific amino acids produce neurotransmitters that can help decrease pain levels.
Not only do amino acids produce chemicals and hormones in reaction to pain and inflammation, but they are essential for building and maintaining the health of our soft tissues, muscles, and bones. If you already have carpal tunnel syndrome, amino acids can be helpful in combating chronic pain by supporting your body’s pain relief system. If you lack or have low levels of specific amino acids, you fall short on the needed pain-fighting hormones and chemicals that are essential to managing stress. You can obtain certain amino acids through your diet, as well as through supplementation, but taking a balanced amino supplement of the essential aminos is ideal.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Outlook
Treating your carpal tunnel syndrome early with physical therapy and lifestyle changes can reduce your symptoms and produce a much more positive long-term outlook. When left untreated, carpal tunnel syndrome can lead to permanent nerve damage, loss of hand strength and feeling, and constant tingling or pain. If your muscles begin to atrophy, your strength begins to decrease and it becomes difficult to open and close your hand, hold objects, and move your fingers freely. Unfortunately, once damage to your muscles occur, it cannot be reversed and managing your symptoms becomes much more difficult.
Never wait until the wrist and hand pain become so disruptive and uncomfortable that you begin to lose movement. When treated early, you can fully recover from carpal tunnel syndrome without any long-term side effects.