Carpal tunnel is a very common condition which causes arm, wrist and hand pain and affects approximately 3 million people every year. While this number sounds astounding, this statistic is not too surprising considering how much texting we do and the amount of time we spend on the computer.
What is Carpal Tunnel?
The carpal tunnel is a narrow passageway of ligaments and bones in the wrist and its function is to protect the median nerve. Your median nerve provides nerve signals to the muscles around your thumb, enabling it to move. It also provides movement to all the fingers except the pinky finger.
If your tunnel narrows due to swelling or inflammation, it can place pressure and constrict the median nerve. When the median nerve is compressed, it causes pain and numbness in your hand and arm. This condition is called carpal tunnel. When treated early, you’ll have no lasting damage. If left untreated, however, it can cause permanent nerve damage. While it most commonly affects your dominant side, you can have carpal tunnel on both sides.
What are the Symptoms?
If you’re suffering from carpal tunnel, you may feel numbness, burning, weakness or tingling. Symptoms can occur particularly in the thumb and index finger but can also present itself in the wrist, hand or arm. As your symptoms worsen, you may notice a decrease in grip strength which can make it hard to perform certain day-to-day tasks.
Additionally, the symptoms can worsen at night and you may feel a tingly sensation when you sleep, which may wake you up with the urge to shake your wrists. This occurs because when you’re at rest and motionless, fluid can build up in your hand and arm which places more pressure on the median nerve. If you have persistent pain, you should see a doctor and seek treatment.
Who is at risk?
Carpal tunnel can arise from repetitive motion and stress and can affect anyone. While many cases are reported from those who work a desk job and do most of their work in front of a computer, those that are at the highest risk are those who work assembly-line jobs. The constant and repetitive motions in their day-to-day jobs make them three times more likely to develop carpal tunnel.
Carpal tunnel may also stem from other factors besides repetitive movement. For instance, you may be at higher risk if you have diabetes or other metabolic diseases. Being overweight can also increase your risk as it can increase the pressure placed on the nerve. You’re also at higher risk of developing it if you’re a female, perhaps because the carpal tunnel itself is smaller in women. In fact, your chances of developing carpal tunnel nearly triple if you’re a woman.
How to treat carpal tunnel?
It is best to treat carpal tunnel as soon as you start to have symptoms. Physical therapy can really help strengthen the muscles and alleviate the pressures off the median nerve. If your carpal tunnel is mild to moderate, the following stretches can help with your symptoms:
Wrist flexor Stretch. On the affected side, hold out your arm out in front of you at shoulder level with your palm facing up. Bend your hand down towards the floor so that your hand and arm form a 90-degree angle. With your other hand, gentle put pressure on your hand so that they are pushed towards your body. You should be able to feel the stretch in your forearms from doing this. Hold this position for ten seconds and release. You can also do this stretch but with your palm facing in towards your body. Bend your hand so that your fingers are pointing towards the ground and your hand and wrist form a 90-degree angle. Place your other hand on the outside and slightly press towards your body. Feel free to alternate between the two.
For another variation, repeat this exercise but with your hand and fingers facing up towards the ceiling versus down. With your other hand, place light pressure on your fingers so that they are being flexed back gently towards your body. Do this gently until you feel a light stretch.
Make a fist with your hands. Open up your fingers like you’re making the “stop” sign. Repeat this a few times every half-hour, especially if you’re doing repetitive motions for your line of work. Another variation is to stretch your fingers as far apart as you can every time you open up from a fist.
As the name explains, raise your hands up to your chin and press your palms together and upwards as if you were praying. While in this position, lower your hands while keeping them close to your body until you are just above the waistline. You should feel the stretch in your forearms. Hold this for ten seconds and repeat.
Median Nerve Stretch
With your palm facing up, separate your thumb from the rest of your fingers. Keep those four fingers tight and together and with the thumb aside, lightly stretch it the other direction away from the other fingers. You should feel a light stretch. Be sure to not place too much pressure on your thumb as you do not want to cause any further injury or farm.
A soft, squishy ball will work for this exercise. With a stress ball, simply grip ad squeeze so the pads of your fingers are grasping the ball. Release after ten seconds and repeat. If you do not have a stress ball, silly putty will suffice.
This one can be done seated. Extend your arm over a desk or table so that your wrist and hand hang off the edge. With a five-pound dumbbell, lift and flex your wrist upward while keeping your forearm on the desk. Once up, slowly bring your wrist down and repeat.
If any of the exercises cause you any pain or discomfort, stop and take a break. If these stretches do not help or your symptoms worsen, we are here to help. We are leading musculoskeletal specialists and our team of physical therapists can help you treat your carpal tunnel syndrome and alleviate the pains and discomforts so that it no longer interferes with your life. Give our office a call at 212-867-1111 today for more information.