Yearly, carpal tunnel syndrome affects millions of Americans and is one of the most common conditions affecting the nerves of the hand. Whether you spend a majority of your days behind a computer or partake in physically demanding activities, you could be at risk for developing this painful syndrome. If you’re experiencing tingling and numbness in your hand or sharp and numbing pain which radiates through your arm, wrist, and hand, you could be affected by carpal tunnel syndrome.
What is carpal tunnel?
The carpal tunnel is a narrow passageway of bones and ligaments which houses the median nerve and nine tendons. The median nerve runs from the forearm through to the palm of the hand and provides sensation to the palm of the hand and all fingers except the pinky. When constant pressure is applied to the median nerve at the wrist, the tissues surrounding the flexor tendons swell and the nerve can become compressed. With time and repetitive pressure on the carpal tunnel, carpal tunnel syndrome, known as CTS for short, can develop. It typically affects the dominant hand but can develop in either or both hands.
Who is at risk?
A large misconception about carpal tunnel is that it mainly affects office workers and those that work behind a computer all day. Truth is, this syndrome has been around well before computers existed. In fact, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is three times more likely in assemblers than it is in data-entry personnel according to a study done by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Anyone can be affected by this condition, especially if you’re engaged in any repetitive motions involving your fingers and hands; these include occupations such as painters, landscapers, assembly line workers, carpenters, musicians, etc.
Athletes that participate in sports that require the player to grip an object while twisting and turning the wrist are at a higher risk of developing CTS; these include golfers, tennis players, rowers, just to name a few. The repetitive nature of these sports may irritate and inflame the muscles and tendons of the wrist. In addition, due to the naturally smaller carpal tunnel, woman are more at risk for developing carpal tunnel syndrome than men.
What causes carpal tunnel?
Carpal tunnel can develop from any of the following:
- Repetitive use and pressure on the wrist
- Natural structure of the wrist
- A cyst or tumor in the wrist
- Conditions such as Diabetes or Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Injury to the wrist including fracture and dislocation
What are the symptoms?
The most common symptoms include pain, numbness and tingling at the hand and fingers. You may also experience radiating pain that travels up the arm and to the shoulder and electrifying pain through your fingers.
Since many people will sleep with their wrists bent, symptoms may first appear in the middle of the night. You may feel the need to shake your wrists as you’re awaken by the pain. You may also experience the pain when you first wake up as well. As the condition worsens, the pain becomes more frequent and constant. Your fingers may weaken and your grip strength may diminish. Simple tasks such as holding the phone and picking up small items may prove to be difficult as symptoms intensify.
There are several preventative measures in which you can take, these include the following:
- Making sure your workstation is conducive to correct ergonomic posture- ensure that your desk and station is set up so that your wrists and hands are comfortably set and elevated correctly and no unnecessary stress is placed on them.
- When using a keyboard, it is optimal to keep your forearms level with your keyboard so you don’t have to flex your wrists.
- Don’t overextend yourself- make sure to take frequent breaks, especially if you’re involved with repetitive activity involving your hand and wrists.
If left untreated, carpal tunnel can worsen over time. Eventually, you will lose muscle strength and sensation at the base of the thumb. In worst case scenarios, the median nerve can become severely or permanently damaged which can lead to loss of movement in the hand. Carpal tunnel syndrome can be irreversible, however, if the appropriate treatment is taken. One can avoid surgical treatments the sooner they seek treatment.
Besides resting and icing the hand, physical therapy can help to treat carpal tunnel syndrome. Physical therapy would include modalities such as electric stimulation or ultrasound to promote healing in the area along with stretching and strengthening exercises of the wrists, elbows, and shoulders. The physical therapist would also discuss ergonomic considerations and offer suggestions for improving your posture to avoid pressure on the carpal tunnel. Corticosteroid injections are another treatment option. Injected right into the carpal tunnel, you will find relief for up to a year.
Some people who suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome wait weeks or even years before they seek any medical attention; this could delay your recovery. If you are experiencing any symptoms seek help right away- give us a call to schedule an evaluation.