Help! I Think I Have Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Here's how to tell you if you have this condition—and what to do about it if you do.
The carpal tunnel is a narrow passageway that runs through your wrist on the palm side of your hand. A nerve runs through this passageway, called the median nerve. If the passageway becomes inflamed, it may compress the median nerve. This can cause pain, tingling, numbness, weakness and reduced function of the wrist, hand and fingers.
Many people have occasional pain or discomfort in their wrist, hand or fingers. But when you have carpal tunnel syndrome, symptoms often begin gradually and worsen over time.
What causes carpal tunnel syndrome?
Repetitive motion of the wrist and hand is the most common cause of carpal tunnel syndrome. The anatomy of your wrist, as well as other health problems you may have, can also contribute to the condition.
What are the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome?
The most common symptoms include:
- Tingling or numbness – This may occur in the hand or fingers (not the pinky) when you perform certain activities, such as typing, driving or holding an object. It may also wake you from sleep.
- Electric shock feeling – You might feel like there's an electric shock running through your wrist into your hand and fingers or up your arm.
- Weakness – You may drop objects or feel like you have weakness in your hand or the muscles around your thumb.
Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, such as weakness or numbness in the hand or arm, may also be signs of a stroke. If these symptoms start suddenly and are accompanied by any of these other stroke symptoms—trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance, lack of coordination, confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech, or difficulty seeing—get medical attention right away.
How is carpal tunnel syndrome diagnosed?
A doctor will ask you questions about symptoms, activities that cause symptoms and your medical history. He or she will perform a physical exam during which your hand, wrist, fingers, arm, shoulder and neck will be checked. There are a number of tests that can be performed to indicate if your median nerve is compressed, so one or more of those tests may be done.
How is carpal tunnel syndrome treated?
The sooner you diagnose the condition, the more likely you can slow its progression or stop it in its tracks. There are a number of treatment options available and it may take some trial and error to figure out what works best for you.
Some options include:
- Wrist brace – This doesn't work for everyone but is worth a try because it has no side effects. Wear the brace for at least 3 - 4 weeks when performing activities that trigger symptoms and when you sleep before deciding if it helps.
- Modify/avoid activities – Repetitive movements make carpal tunnel worse, especially if your wrist is bent either up or down. Keep your wrist in a straight, neutral position. Take a break for a few minutes every hour to stretch hands and wrists. Maintain good posture. Avoid activities that trigger symptoms as much as possible.
- Stretch – Gentle stretching and flexing of your hand, wrist and fingers may help. Before you begin, put your hand in warm water to loosen things up.
- Ice – When symptoms flare, put ice on your wrist for 10-15 minutes once or twice an hour to relieve inflammation.
- OTC pain meds – If symptoms are bothersome, ibuprofen, naproxen or aspirin may reduce pain and inflammation.
- Physical/occupational therapy – This can help you strengthen muscles, improve flexibility and learn how to modify activities.
- Steroids – A cortisone shot in the wrist may provide relief from pain and swelling, but it is not a long-term fix.
- Surgery – This is a last resort option if you don't get relief from other treatments, but it usually cures the condition. During surgery, the ligament at the top of the carpal tunnel passageway is cut to give the median nerve more room to pass through.
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Date Last Reviewed: December 12, 2022
Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor
Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD