Do you experience soreness, numbness, or tingling in your hand, wrist, and arm? If you've had these symptoms for a while, it might be time to visit a doctor to talk about carpal tunnel syndrome.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common condition, but many people don't know that they have it until it's too late. With early treatment, you can reduce your symptoms. But how do you know if you have carpal tunnel syndrome, and what should you do about it?
We're here to keep you informed. Read on to learn all about carpal tunnel syndrome.
What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Carpal tunnel syndrome is common. It's a condition that can cause tingling and numbness in the hand, wrist, and arm. It occurs when the median nerve (one of the major nerves to the hand) is too compressed due to swelling or poor wrist positioning.
The carpal tunnel itself is what protects the flexor tendons and median nerve in the hand and wrist. It isn't able to stretch, so it's easy for it to become damaged.
The median nerve controls the muscles around the base of the thumb and it provides feeling to the hand, wrist, and several fingers (the thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers. The pinky is unaffected).
Carpal tunnel syndrome is treatable, but only if you catch it early enough. Patients may discover that the syndrome reverses itself with enough early treatment, even without medication or surgery.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Causes
Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when the carpal tunnel becomes too narrow or when there's significant swelling around it (causing it to become compressed). Swelling crowds the nerves and causes numbness, pain, and weakness in the wrists and hands.
So what causes this?
First, repetitive hand movements. While your hands are capable of handling complex tasks, if you move them in similar ways for extended periods of time, it can cause swelling and compression (which leads to carpal tunnel syndrome).
In our current era of constant computer use for work and leisure, typing is a major (often unavoidable) culprit. People who spend all day typing (especially without adequate wrist support) can find themselves in serious pain at the end of their workday.
Other professions can also lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. Tattoo artists, beauticians, designers, and anyone else who frequently uses their hands for work in repetitive ways can develop carpal tunnel syndrome.
Poor hand and wrist position can also cause carpal tunnel syndrome. Even repetitive activities can be okay as long as you have good support and you keep your hands in a safe position.
If you type without wrist support, you have a greater risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome. It's important to invest in a wrist brace or a wrist rest if you spend all day on your computer.
Several risk factors may make you more likely to develop carpal tunnel syndrome.
First, heredity. Many people are born with carpal tunnels that are smaller and narrower than they should be. This leads to easier median nerve compression. This problem runs in families, so if your parents have carpal tunnel syndrome, you should be more careful to avoid it.
If you're a woman, you're more likely to develop carpal tunnel syndrome. This is even more true if you go through a pregnancy. Women are three times as likely to develop carpal tunnel syndrome.
Age is also a risk factor. Even if you take good care of your hands and wrists, you're more likely to develop carpal tunnel syndrome as you get older.
Certain health conditions also put you at risk for carpal tunnel syndrome. They include (but are not limited to) arthritis, thyroid gland imbalance, and diabetes.
Obesity may be a risk factor for carpal tunnel syndrome due to increased pressure on your wrists and your higher chance of developing type 2 diabetes. Medications that change your body fluid levels may also lead to carpal tunnel syndrome because increased fluid adds more compression to the carpal tunnel itself.
If you have any risk factors for carpal tunnel syndrome, make sure to take extra care of your wrists.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Symptoms
So how would you know if you have carpal tunnel syndrome? You can't know for sure until you visit a doctor, but it is fairly easy to determine whether or not you have carpal tunnel if you notice certain common symptoms.
Numbness and tingling are often the first symptoms that people will notice when they're developing carpal tunnel syndrome. You'll feel the "pins and needles" feeling that you develop when a body part falls asleep.
Numbness and tingling should only affect the fingers that connect to the median nerve. This means that your little finger should remain unaffected.
Numbness will happen when you're completing repetitive motions or trying to hold things. If you lift weights, you may find that holding a barbell causes tingling in your wrists. Even holding onto a steering wheel can cause discomfort.
After the numbness and tingling, you may develop weakness in your hands and wrists. Since the median nerve controls your fingers, too much compression can cause you to drop things. You won't feel the item drop from your hands because the nerve controls your sensations.
Some people develop pain when they have carpal tunnel syndrome. It should feel like a shooting pain that goes from the fingers to the forearm or wrist.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Types
Carpal tunnel syndrome isn't the only syndrome that can affect your wrists. While cubital tunnel syndrome and radial tunnel syndrome aren't types of carpal tunnel syndrome per se, they are related and it's helpful to know the differences and similarities.
Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
Cubital tunnel syndrome doesn't occur due to pressure on the median nerve. Instead, it occurs due to pressure on the ulnar nerve. It's also known as ulnar neuropathy.
This nerve connects to your elbow.
Cubital tunnel syndrome is far less common than carpal tunnel syndrome, but it is possible to experience both syndromes at the same time. It happens when there's repeated pressure around your elbow, such as leaning on it or keeping it in an unusual position.
Unlike carpal tunnel syndrome, one of the symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome is numbness in the pinky finger. Remember: the median nerve won't connect to the pinky. It also affects the ring finger.
When left untreated, cubital tunnel syndrome can cause a claw-like deformity in the hand as well as muscle wasting.
Radial Tunnel Syndrome
Radial tunnel syndrome is another common wrist, arm, and hand syndrome.
Unlike cubital and carpal tunnel syndromes, radial tunnel syndrome affects the radial nerve. It can be caused by standard inflammation, but it's also often caused by tumours in the bones or fatty tissues.
If you have radial tunnel syndrome, you'll notice a stabbing pain around the top of the hand and forearm. It almost never causes tingling or numbness.
How to Diagnose Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
There are several ways for doctors to diagnose carpal tunnel syndrome. Some are easier than others.
Doctors will start with a physical examination. They may press around your median nerve to see if you experience any pain or discomfort. They'll put your hand and wrist in strange positions to see if it triggers any numbness or tingling.
They may test for numbness and weakness by touching your fingers while you're not looking. They'll also look for signs of muscle atrophy.
A doctor might order an x-ray if they have doubts after the physical exam. An x-ray will help the doctor determine if there is another potential cause for your condition, such as a fracture or arthritis. They may also order an MRI.
Electrophysiological tests are effective for the diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome. These tests can also catch other potential causes for your discomfort, such as neuropathy.
Nerve conduction studies can detect signals that travel through your hand and arm. If it's already clear that you have carpal tunnel syndrome, a doctor may use this test to determine how serious the condition is so they can recommend proper treatment.
An electromyogram (EMG) can detect potential nerve and muscle damage. This also helps the doctor determine the best treatment method for you.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Treatment
So how do doctors treat carpal tunnel syndrome?
There are several "levels" of treatment. Not every treatment type will be appropriate for every patient. The first stage of treatment is prevention when you notice a problem.
Do your best to avoid frequent repetitive wrist movements and don't be afraid to take breaks when you need to. Consider asking for accommodations if your workplace requires those repetitive movements.
When you feel discomfort, ice your wrists to relieve and prevent swelling.
This is common advice from doctors. When it's finally time to visit the doctor's office and start seeking treatment options, here's what the doctor may do.
Doctors always want to start with non-surgical options if it's at all possible to do so.
Your doctor may recommend a splint or brace. This brace can hold your wrist in place while you sleep or while you do your repetitive movements. Many people only wear splints or braces while they sleep, but small ones are acceptable while you're working.
Doctors may also suggest that you try over-the-counter anti-inflammatories. These should reduce swelling and inflammation, but they won't solve the underlying issue.
Corticosteroids are popular non-surgical options for carpal tunnel syndrome. A doctor will inject the corticosteroids directly into your carpal tunnel to relieve pain.
Some doctors might recommend physical therapy for carpal tunnel, though this is less common. It wouldn't hurt to contact a physical therapist on your own if your doctor doesn't give you a referral.
If you're treating your carpal tunnel at home as well, you may find yoga helpful. Yoga can strengthen and stretch your wrists. Make sure that these yoga positions don't cause you pain.
If your condition is more serious, surgery might be necessary. There are two common types of surgical procedures for carpal tunnel syndrome.
The first is endoscopic surgery. The surgeon will use an endoscope (or a tiny camera) to navigate your carpal tunnel so that they're able to cut the ligament. This is the least invasive of the two surgical options, and patients can anticipate less pain during their recovery period.
Open surgery is a less ideal option. The surgeon will make an incision in your hand in order to access the carpal tunnel and cut the ligament. This requires a lengthier recovery period.
Possible complications from surgery include:
- Nerve damage
- Incomplete release of the ligament (requiring further surgery or treatment)
What Happens If Carpel Tunnel Syndrome Is Left Untreated?
When left untreated, carpal tunnel syndrome will continue to progress. It can lead to muscle atrophy and permanent nerve damage. While mild carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms may go away on their own, that's unlikely to happen if you don't take steps to protect your wrists.
As soon as you notice symptoms that don't go away, visit a doctor.
Do Provincial Health Care Plans Cover the Cost of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Treatment?
At the moment, provincial health care plans are unlikely to cover the cost of surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome. Since it also doesn't cover physical therapy in most situations, you may end up having to pay for your carpal tunnel treatment out-of-pocket.
It's helpful to have a supplemental private insurance plan for instances like this one.
Seeking Help for Your Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Carpal tunnel syndrome can be debilitating, but you don't have to go through it without help. With proper treatment, you can regain mobility in your hands, wrists, and fingers.
Insurdinary wants to help you find the best treatment options. We offer the best insurance quotes in Canada so you can find a plan that works for your needs. Get a quote and start seeking help today.
Insurdinary provides these articles for educational purposes only. Please take a moment to read our disclaimer.