Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition that affects the hand and wrist. The carpal tunnel is a narrow, rigid passageway that houses and protects tendons and the median nerve (arm nerve). It provides sensations to the thumb, index finger, middle finger and part of the ring finger. The median nerve is a motor nerve which means that it provides nerve signals that enable the hand to perform certain movements such as pinching and gripping objects.
If there has been trauma or sustained pressure on the median nerve, one may experience tingling or numbness in the hand. We have all, at one time or another crossed our legs for an extended period of time and felt comparable tingling. For those who suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome, it is virtually the same phenomenon except that it is constant. In fact, the carpal tunnel gradually narrows and exerts constant pressure on the median nerve.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is quite common, particularly among the elderly, and it predominantly affects women. It is the result of swelling in the wrist and/or a narrowing of the carpal tunnel. Certain risk factors increase one's predisposition to this condition, including:
- wrist injury (sprain, fracture)
- hormonal changes (pregnancy, menopause)
- repetitive or forceful movements involving the hand and wrist
Symptoms, which gradually intensify, begin with burning, tingling and numbness in the fingers (except the little finger). If symptoms progress they may come to include:
- pain that radiates or extends through the arm and elbow
- a feeling of swelling in the fingers
- loss of feeling in the fingers
- hand weakness
- loss of muscle strength in the hand
Carpal tunnel syndrome is diagnosed by a physician. It is important to seek medical advice as promptly as possible since early treatment will increase one's chances for full recovery. It may be necessary to undergo an electromyogram - a test designed to determine whether the symptoms are in fact the result of a compressed median nerve. This test will also help establish the severity of the situation. An electromyogram consists of placing electrodes on the arms and releasing small electrical impulses to assess nerve response.
The first step in treating carpal tunnel syndrome involves taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication such as aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil™, Motrin™) which can be purchased at the local pharmacy. The physician can also prescribe cortisone injections to be administered directly into the wrist. Although these injections can be quite painful they provide longer-lasting relief.
Applying hot or cold compresses can also temporarily ease the pain. Generally speaking, hot compresses activate circulation but can also increase pain while cold compresses will help reduce inflammation. Relief, of course, will vary from person to person. If the problem has been going on for a long time, the use of a wrist splint may be suggested. This will allow the joint to rest and will help accelerate the healing process.
In more serious cases, surgery may be required. The procedure involves opening the carpal tunnel thereby relieving pressure. The success rate for this operation is very high.
For more information or for support :
The Arthritis Society