If you’re among the 4 million to 10 million Americans affected with carpal tunnel syndrome, you know how painful this condition can be. But it can be treated — often without surgery. Knowing the signs and symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, along with your treatment options, may help you manage this common condition.
Your Nerves and Carpal Tunnel
There are three main nerves that affect hand function and sensations:
The median nerve passes through the carpal tunnel, which runs between your wrist and tendons. The carpal tunnel can be very tight in some patients, and because of this, the median nerve can get squeezed within the tunnel.
Warning Signs of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Numbness and tingling in the fingers (typically in all fingers except the pinky)
Vague, achy pain in the hand that may go up into the forearm
Waking up at night from pain or numbness in the hand
Because the median nerve controls many muscles in the thumb, people who have had carpal tunnel for a long time may experience weakening of the thumb to the point that they’re unable to grab or hold onto things.
Anyone Can Develop Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Although carpal tunnel syndrome is often characterized as an occupational hazard for those who work desk jobs, the truth is that anyone can get it. Any kind of repetitive wrist action — whether at work or at home doing hobbies for fun — can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. If you engage in an activity that involves repeated wrist movements, you may be at risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
Another group of people who are at risk? Pregnant women. The generalized swelling that occurs during pregnancy can also cause the already tight carpal tunnel to become even tighter, potentially causing carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists. According to some estimates, up to 60 percent of women may experience carpal tunnel syndrome during pregnancy. Most of the time, symptoms of carpal tunnel resolve completely after the baby is born.
How carpal tunnel is treated depends on its severity. Patients with early-stage carpal tunnel syndrome may benefit from wearing splints, especially at night, when symptoms may interrupt sleep. Splints work by keeping the wrists straight, maximizing the space in the carpal tunnel and preventing the median nerve from being squeezed.
Another option for treating mild carpal tunnel syndrome is steroid injections, which can help about 20 percent of people.
If splints and injections don’t help, surgery to open the carpal tunnel and relieve pressure on the nerve may be the next step. Recovery from surgery happens quickly, with some patients able to pick things up the day of their procedure. The only restriction avoiding heavy lifting for a week or two after surgery.
Focus on Warning Signs
There’s no surefire way to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome, not even using special ergonomic keyboards or desk set-ups. While there is a market for these types of products, and they may make you more comfortable while working, there isn’t definitive science to support their use to prevent carpal tunnel.
That’s why early detection of carpal tunnel syndrome is key. If you start to experience any numbness or tingling in your thumb, middle, ring or index fingers, talk to your healthcare provider. By catching carpal tunnel in the early stages, you may be able to treat it without surgery — before it becomes permanent.
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