Carpal tunnel syndrome is painful, aggravating and, unfortunately, relatively common. Approximately 10 percent of people in careers that involve movements such as typing, lifting and gripping are diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome.
But what causes this painful condition — and what exactly is the carpal tunnel? Henry Ford hand surgeon Charles S. Day, M.D., discusses risk factors, symptoms and what you can do to avoid — and address — carpal tunnel syndrome.
Anatomy 101: What Is The Carpal Tunnel?
The carpal tunnel is the passage in your wrist through which the nine forearm tendons and the median nerve travel into your hand. The median nerve is one of the main nerves of the forearm. Most of the muscles and tendons of the forearm have to “hourglass” through the carpal tunnel and then expand back out to all five fingers.
“The carpal tunnel is narrow. Very narrow,” explains Dr. Day. “Over time, continued usage may cause the tendons to become swollen in this fixed narrow tunnel. Since they have nowhere to expand, they press on the median nerve. This pressure restricts blood flow to the nerve, which can result in pain, numbness and weakness in the hand.”
A Primer On Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Are you feeling the burn in your wrist, hand, fingers or thumb? These fast facts may get you closer to relief:
Risk Factor Rundown
Over time, repetitive movements can cause tendons to enlarge and press on the median nerve. “Carpal tunnel syndrome typically affects people over the age of 40 who work in administration and manufacturing,” says Dr. Day. “The majority of people who have carpal tunnel syndrome have been working in jobs with repetitive movements for years.”
Dr. Day adds that activities that cause the wrist to bend in (hyperflex) or out (hyperextend) can also lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. In addition, your risk for carpal tunnel syndrome is higher if you have:
- Family history
- Rheumatoid arthritis
Reduce Your Use
Dr. Day says the best way to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome is to avoid — or try to reduce — the activities that can cause it. Tips include:
- Employing voice recognition software rather than typing, when possible
- Using a dolly, other equipment or the help of others to grip, lift and move heavy and large objects
- Changing repetitive motions and hand positions, especially if your wrist is extended or flexed for long periods of time
“Even a 20 to 30 percent reduction in workload on the tendons can make a difference,” remarks Dr. Day.
“Common symptoms for carpal tunnel syndrome include pain, numbness and tingling in the thumb, fingers or forearm,” says Dr. Day. “You might also experience weakness and fatigue in the hand.”
Dr. Day also points out that some people experience different or unusual symptoms. He often suspects carpal tunnel syndrome when he sees patients with hand pain that has no specific cause. These symptoms may include sensations that:
- Can’t be reproduced
- Come and go
- Seem to occur randomly
Finding Relief For Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Carpal tunnel relief can sometimes be achieved with a brace. Dr. Day remarks that a wrist brace may be worn at night or during the day when doing activities that cause symptoms.
“A wrist brace limits the ability to move and hyperflex or hyperextend the wrist,” says Dr. Day. “This limitation of movement maximizes the volume and diameter of the carpal tunnel. As a result, the tendons heal and reduced inflammation decreases the pressure on the median nerve.”
If you continue having symptoms or if pain wakes you during the night, it’s time to see an expert. “Not treating carpal tunnel syndrome can lead to permanent damage,” says Dr. Day. “Pain is caused by lack of blood flow to the nerve. If that blood flow continues to be compromised, you could have irreversible nerve damage.” Dr. Day adds that carpal tunnel treatment is typically surgery, which has a success rate of approximately 90 percent.
Carpal tunnel syndrome gets on your nerve. Literally. Yet this common — but painful — problem can be treated and should be addressed for optimal health now and in the future.
To find an orthopedic surgeon at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
Dr. Charles Day is an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in hand and wrist surgery. He sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Henry Ford Medical Center - Bloomfield Township.