What You Need to Know About Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
We use all sorts of devices and technology at work to make our jobs easier—from computers to hand tools to assembly-line machinery. Along with convenience and increased productivity, however, comes the risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome, a repetitive stress injury (RSI) that affects the hands and fingers.
The most common (but likely under-reported) RSI, carpal tunnel syndrome affects 4 to 10 million Americans. It’s usually related to work activities such as:
- Forceful or repetitive hand movements
- Hand-arm vibration
- Working for long periods in the same position or in an awkward position
Why does repetitive motion cause carpal tunnel syndrome?
Using a computer, machine or other device all day can strain the muscles, tendons and joints in your hand and cause them to swell.
The median nerve and several tendons run from the forearm to the hand through a small space in the wrist called the carpal tunnel. Swelling in the wrist can make the carpal tunnel smaller and put pressure on the median nerve, which results in the pain, numbness and tingling associated with carpal tunnel syndrome.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include:
- Tingling and numbness in the fingers or hand
- Weakness, especially in the pinching muscles of the thumb
- Arm pain between the hand and elbow
- Increased symptoms at night
The median nerve doesn’t control the little finger, so these symptoms more often affect the thumb, index finger, middle finger and ring finger. If you have problems with these fingers but your little finger is fine, this may be a telltale sign that you have carpal tunnel syndrome.
How is carpal tunnel syndrome diagnosed?
Carpal tunnel syndrome is typically diagnosed through an examination and discussion of symptoms. Your doctor will ask questions about your medical history to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms, such as tendinitis. In some cases, a nerve test may be performed to confirm the diagnosis.
How is carpal tunnel syndrome treated?
Mild cases of carpal tunnel syndrome can usually be treated by making small changes to your daily routine, including:
- Rotating jobs. While at work, you should rotate your job tasks to give your hands and wrists a break. For example, if you work in an office, alternate typing tasks with filing or other non-computer tasks.
- Adjusting your workstation. Your workstation should allow you to maintain proper wrist and hand position. If you work in an office, it may be necessary to raise or lower your chair, use a wrist pad on your keyboard or adjust your armrests to ensure that your wrists remain in a neutral position.
- Stretching. When performing repetitive activities, it’s important to take short, frequent breaks to stretch your hands and wrists. Your doctor can suggest stretches that you can do while at work.
- Splinting. Wearing a splint at night can reduce the pressure on your median nerve. If you have a severe case of carpal tunnel syndrome, you may need to wear a splint during the day as well.
You also can take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen to help relieve discomfort. For more severe or persistent cases of carpal tunnel syndrome, your doctor may recommend oral steroids or steroid injections, which can help reduce swelling.
Your doctor may also recommend hand therapy, which is provided by a specially trained physical therapist. The therapist uses massage, heat or ice, along with special exercises, to help relieve your symptoms. If hand therapy is unsuccessful, surgery also may be an option.
Get help sooner rather than later
The sooner you start treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome, the better your chances of preventing the condition from getting worse or leading to long-term nerve damage.
Updated February 3, 2020