by Kimberly Allen, RN
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition that develops when the nerve known as the median nerve becomes pinched. Carpal tunnel syndrome affects over 2 million people resulting in approximately 500,000 surgeries every year. It affects women more frequently than men and Caucasians more than any other race. Estimates are that if you include all the lost wages, lost productivity as well as compensation costs this type pf injury costs approximately $50 billion every year in the US alone. Personal medical costs average $30,000 per year per person, that includes Drs visits, therapy and medications.
The carpal tunnel is the small space between the fibrous band of tissue that surrounds and supports the wrist and the wrist bone. The median nerve runs through this tunnel to the index and middle fingers of the hand as well as the thumb. Should anything happen that causes the tunnel to swell or change it’s position it can put pressure on the nerve which then causes the nerve to become irritated. There are many conditions that can increase your risk of carpal tunnel syndrome including certain chronic health issue like diabetes and other conditions that increase your risk of nerve damage. People with certain inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, which can affect the tendons in the wrist, which in turn alters the position of the carpal tunnel, in turn putting pressure on the median nerve; conditions that alter the delicate balance of fluids in your body like pregnancy or menopause; as well as thyroid diseases and kidney problems, especially kidney failure can all lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. Obesity can also affect this delicate balance. People that have these types of health issues tend to retain excess fluids which can increase the pressure in their carpal tunnel. There are also certain repetitive motions that can cause pressure on the median nerve, especially those that involve repetitive or prolonged flexing of the wrists. Working with vibrating tools can cause the carpal tunnel to shift putting pressure on the median nerve. Some experts also feel that some repetitive hand movements like typing are more likely to lead to tendonitis which can then lead to carpal tunnel syndrome than be a direct cause of carpal tunnel syndrome.
The symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome usually develop slowly usually starting with an achy feeling in your wrist and hand. As the inflammation and irritation progresses you’ll start to feel a numbness and tingling sensation in the areas that are served by the median nerve, ie. the thumb, index and middle fingers. Many people notice it when they’re holding onto something like the steering wheel or phone. The numbness and tingling tends to be worse at nite which some feel could be due to the “flexed wrist sleeping position”. As the condition progresses the achy feeling turns into pain that can radiate all the way up to your shoulder and down to your finger tips. The pain is more severe after use. Along with the pain you will experience increased weakness in your hand, especially when trying to grip or hold objects and you may start dropping things.
Treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome varies depending on the severity of the condition. Many people that have mild carpal tunnel syndrome are able to manage and improve their symptoms by resting their hands more frequently and using ice packs to reduce any swelling. If you are unable to resolve your symptoms with ice and rest there are splints available that you can wear at nite to keep your wrist alignment in place. It can also be helpful to take NSAID’s for pain relief. If you continue to have significant pain your Dr may inject a corticosteroid like cortisone into your carpal tunnel to reduce the inflammation and pain. Should your carpal tunnel continue to progress after trying all non-surgical methods your Dr may suggest surgery to relieve the pressure on the median nerve.
There is no specific way to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome however, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk like relaxing your grip, using less force to grab and.or hold objects. Periodically give your hands and wrists a break and stretch them. Trying to keep your wrists from being in a flexed position for extended periods of time. Keep your hands and wrists warm, if you work in a cold environment wear gloves that will keep your hands and wrists warm. Early detection and treatment are essential to recovery and maintaining optimal level of functioning.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.