Written by Michele Wheat
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a painful and potentially debilitating condition that affects the hands and the wrists. It is a disorder that involves the compression of the median nerve which, along with nine tendons, passes through an opening in the wrist known as the carpal tunnel. It can affect one or both hands and, according to The National Library of Medicine, it can affect roughly up to 5% of adults. Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs more frequently in people 40 to 60 years old and up to three times more often in women than men. Because it can negatively impact one's hands over time, it's important for people to understand and properly treat it.
The Causes of Carpal Tunnel
The median nerve is a nerve that runs from the hand, through the carpal tunnel in the wrist, up to the forearm. It's an important nerve that allows people to move and feel sensations in their thumbs and most fingers. When something squeezes that nerve, it can cause carpal tunnel syndrome. Various factors can cause squeezing or pressure, such as repetitive motion or the regular use of vibrating tools. Activities like cooking, continuous use of video game controllers, and construction work can cause this condition. Injuries, such as a fractured wrist, can also cause carpal tunnel syndrome, as can inflammatory conditions, disease, or other medical conditions. These conditions include rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, thyroid disorders, pregnancy, and menopause.
The Symptoms of Carpal Tunnel
Carpal tunnel involves several symptoms that affect the fingers and hands. In the fingers and thumb, one may experience numbness or a loss of feeling that does not include their little finger. Some may also have a burning sensation, feelings of pins and needles, or tingling that can extend up their wrist to the elbow.
Symptoms in the hands include weakness and difficulty gripping and holding on to objects. The hands, particularly the palms, may also experience tingling or numbness, which may cause people to drop things. Some symptoms may also worsen during the night and even wake people from sleep.
There are several measures people can take to reduce their risk of carpal tunnel syndrome or having it reoccur. While it isn't necessary to cut out activities that may lead to the condition, people should be mindful of how their hands are used while doing tasks or gripping objects, as people often use more force than is necessary. Actively take steps to be more careful and use a lighter touch or grip to reduce your chances of carpal tunnel.
Other ways people can prevent carpal tunnel is to take brief but frequent breaks when doing things that may cause carpal tunnel, such as using equipment that vibrates. During these breaks, stretch, flex, and rotate fingers and wrists. It also helps to be mindful of their overall posture and to hold their wrists in a neutral position as often as possible to avoid overly bending them.
Stretching exercises are a common method for preventing carpal tunnel and recurring symptoms. The best time to start stretches is after the pain of a flare-up has subsided and always after warming up. To warm up, start with warm-up stretches. A simple warm-up routine includes four repetitions of simple wrist rotations and moving the wrists up and down and side to side. Another warm-up involves stretching the fingers wide apart and then relaxing them. Next, pull one thumb back gently and then the other. Repeat both warming stretches at least four times.
After warming up, some helpful and quick stretches include prayer, wrist flexor, and wrist extensor stretches. When a person performs a prayer stretch, they hold their hands in a praying position with their fingers just below their chin. While keeping the palms together, slowly lower them until they feel a stretch beneath their forearms. Hold the stretch for up to 30 seconds. Repeat four more times.
With the wrist flexor stretch, one should hold up an arm so that it's in front of them and turn their palm upwards. Then point the fingers downward, using the opposite hand to continue to bend the wrist. Stop when you feel a moderate stretch in the forearm. Hold for 30 seconds and then release and repeat four times.
The wrist extensor stretch is very similar to the wrist flexor stretch. Instead of turning the palm of the extended arm upward, turn it downward. Just as before, point the fingers downward and use the opposite hand to pull it down toward the body until one feels a stretch ranging from mild to moderate.
Other stretches include the thumb stretch, which involves making a fist around the thumb of one hand and bending the fisted hand until the stretch is felt and holding for 30 seconds. One should repeat this action up to four times before switching to the opposite hand.
Easing Discomfort or Aches in the Wrists
When looking for pain relief from carpal tunnel syndrome, one of the first things a person can do, if possible, is to stop any activity that may worsen symptoms. If that isn't possible, there are a few other methods that can provide temporary relief from discomfort. Warmth can help reduce pain, soothe stiff and sore muscles, and help the healing process. Icing the area can help to reduce inflammation. Because too much cold or heat can worsen the problem, avoid using them for too long. When icing the area, apply ice for only 10 to 15 minutes, once or twice an hour. If using heating, leave it on for no longer than 30 minutes at a time.
Keeping one's wrists in a neutral position is important to not only prevent carpal tunnel syndrome, but it can also reduce related aches and pains. Wearing a splint can help keep one's wrist in the best position for the condition.
When other methods aren't providing enough relief, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen may be beneficial. Elevating one's hands and wrists when possible can also help to ease discomfort. In addition to stretches, other carpal tunnel exercises, such as squeezing a finger exercise ball, may also help reduce pressure.
It's important to always speak with a doctor for both permission and instruction before attempting carpal tunnel exercise or taking NSAIDs to avoid worsening the condition or negative interactions with other medications. Doctors may also recommend giving cortisone shots to help ease the pain. Sometimes, with pain that is long-lasting and intense, the doctor may suggest surgery.