Carpal tunnel syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common, treatable condition that leads to numbness, tingling, or pain in the hand and wrist. These symptoms are caused by pressure on the median nerve, which provides feeling and movement to the thumb side of the hand.

The median nerve enters the hand through the carpal tunnel, which is a narrow passage formed by a ligament and bones where the hand and wrist meet. Tendons that control the fingers also pass through the carpal tunnel. Because the carpal tunnel is already narrow, any swelling in the ligament or in the tendons can squeeze or pinch the median nerve.

Symptoms

Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome often begin gradually. You may notice symptoms in one hand or in both hands. For some people, the symptoms begin as numbness or tingling in the hand while sleeping. As symptoms get worse and more noticeable throughout the day, they may include:

  • Numbness or tingling in the palm
  • Numbness or tingling in the thumb and index and middle finger
  • Pain in the wrist or hand, sometimes all the way up to the elbow
  • Weakened grip
  • Difficulty with finger movement

Causes and risk factors

Carpal tunnel syndrome is more common in women than in men, and it most often affects people aged 30 to 60.

Factors that may contribute to the swelling that causes carpal tunnel syndrome include:

  • Tendinitis or bursitis, sometimes brought on by repetitive movements of the hand or wrist
  • Injury or trauma to the wrist
  • Obesity
  • Alcohol
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Fluid retention during pregnancy or menopause
  • Work tasks involving vibrating tools

Treatment options

If you’ve been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, your doctor may recommend that you take anti-inflammatory medicine, like ibuprofen, and wear a brace that keeps your wrist in a non-flexed position.

More serious or advanced cases of carpal tunnel syndrome are treated with a surgery called carpal tunnel release, in which the surgeon makes a cut in the ligament that forms the carpal tunnel. This reduces the amount of pressure the ligament puts on the median nerve.

Some people notice that their symptoms go away immediately after surgery, but most see a more gradual improvement.

If carpal tunnel syndrome is not treated, the symptoms may become permanent, and some muscles in the hand may be permanently damaged.

If you think you have carpal tunnel syndrome, you should be examined by a doctor who specializes in hand and wrist conditions. A specialist can diagnose carpal tunnel syndrome and make sure that your symptoms are not being caused by a different or more serious condition.

Last reviewed: 
November 2017

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