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Understanding carpal tunnel syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome can affect anyone. Know the symptoms, and get help if you have them, to ensure the health of your wrists and hands.

The bones and tissues of your wrist form the carpal tunnel, which protects the median nerve. This nerve provides feeling in your thumb, index, middle and ring fingers. When other tissues in the carpal tunnel become inflamed they press against the median nerve, causing pain or numbness in the hand. This uncomfortable series of events is known as carpal tunnel syndrome.

What causes it?

Carpal tunnel syndrome is usually caused by repeated hand movements, says the American Academy of Family Physicians.

A wrist injury; pregnancy; or a disease like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis or thyroid disease can also cause it. Hobbies such as gardening, needlework, golfing and canoeing may also be to blame.

Symptoms

Symptoms will generally occur in the hand that you use most. They may include:

  • Numbness or tingling in your hand and fingers that radiates up the arm.
  • Increasing pain with the use of your hand and wrist.
  • Burning pain in your wrist, palm or forearm that worsens at night.
  • Trouble with your grip.
  • Weakness and aching in your thumb.
  • For women, more pain in the hand in the last few months of pregnancy.

If you have any of these symptoms, consult your doctor.

Who it affects

People of all ages and both sexes are at risk for carpal tunnel syndrome, although it is three times more likely to develop in women than in men.

It is found most often in workers whose tasks require repetition of the same motion in the fingers and hands for long periods of time.

People who spend hours typing, carpenters, grocery checkers, assembly-line workers, meat packers, violinists and mechanics are common candidates.

How to prevent it

  • Lose weight if you are overweight.
  • Get treatment for any disease you have that may contribute to carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • If you must perform repetitious tasks with your hands, try not to bend, extend or twist them for long periods.
  • Don't work with your arms too close to or too far away from your body.
  • Don't rest your wrists on hard surfaces for long periods.
  • Switch hands during a task.
  • Use tools that fit your hands.
  • Take regular breaks from repetitious movements.
  • Take breaks from using tools that vibrate.
  • Don't stay in the same position all day.
  • If you type a lot, adjust your chair so that your forearms are level with your keyboard and your wrist does not need to flex in order to type.

Ways to treat it

There are ways to treat carpal tunnel syndrome other than surgery.

If you have a disease that caused your carpal tunnel syndrome, treating the disease may make the syndrome go away.

Your doctor may show you how to change the way you use your hand or ask you to rest your wrist by using your other hand more. You also may be asked to apply cool packs, wear a splint or do stretching exercises.

It is also useful to prop up the affected arm with pillows when lying down.

Drug treatment

Sometimes a shot of cortisone in the carpal tunnel helps to stop swelling and inflammation and ease pain. This remedy, however, is temporary and may not last. Your doctor can help you understand your options.

Surgery

In severe cases, surgery is required to cut the ligament pressing on the median nerve.

Normal use of the hand generally returns a few weeks to a few months after surgery. However, regular wrist and finger exercises are required for full recovery.

reviewed 9/5/2019

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