What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome? Your Guide

Medically Reviewed By Daniel Wiznia, MD
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Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common condition that is often associated with repetitive actions of the hands and wrists, such as typing at a keyboard. Carpal tunnel syndrome can lead to pain, numbness, and sometimes disability of the hands. Around 3.1% of people ages 18–64 years experience carpal tunnel syndrome each year. Early diagnosis and treatment can reduce or eliminate the symptoms and complications of carpal tunnel syndrome, such as permanent hand numbness and grip weakness.

Read on to learn about the treatment options for carpal tunnel syndrome. This guide also provides information about its diagnosis, causes, and prevention tips.

What is carpal tunnel syndrome?

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Carpal tunnel syndrome results from the compression of the median nerve, which runs through the wrist. The median nerve is in a narrow channel in the wrist called the carpal tunnel, which is created by bones and a ligament.

The functions of the median nerve are to transmit sensations from the fingers and hands to the spinal cord and control the movement of the hand and forearm muscles. The median nerve can become compressed when repetitive activities of the hand and wrist cause swelling and inflammation in the wrist and carpal tunnel.

What are the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome?

The symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome affect the fingers, hand, and wrist. They include:

  • numbness
  • tingling
  • pain
  • a swollen feeling in the fingers
  • having a weak pinch
  • dropping objects

With carpal tunnel syndrome, you will not usually feel any pain at first. Instead, you will typically experience tingling and numbness in:

  • the thumb
  • the index finger
  • the middle finger
  • half of all of the ring finger

The symptoms tend to begin mildly and gradually, and they may come and go. You may find that the symptoms are worse during certain activities or with specific hand movements.

They may also worsen at night, which is when your wrist is in a hyperflexed position. This causes the carpal tunnel to tighten and constrict, which squeezes the median nerve.

If carpal tunnel syndrome occurs as a result of an injury, symptoms can happen suddenly, and they may be more severe.

Can I treat carpal tunnel syndrome without surgery?

You can relieve the symptoms of mild or early carpal tunnel syndrome without surgery. Nonsurgical treatments for carpal tunnel syndrome include:

  • Wearing a brace or splint: A wrist support such as a brace or a splint can prevent you from bending your wrist and causing more pain. Specially designed night splints can also help protect your wrist while you sleep.
  • Taking pain relievers: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as naproxen and ibuprofen can help reduce pain and inflammation. Contact your pharmacist for advice about the best type for you.
  • Exercising the hand and wrist: Performing specific hand and wrist exercises that help the median nerve move more freely can help ease symptoms. Your doctor will be able to advise on which exercises to do, depending on the severity of your symptoms.
  • Receiving corticosteroid injections: Corticosteroid injections have anti-inflammatory properties that can help alleviate symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • Making changes to your desk or workstation: Carpal tunnel syndrome can result from repetitive movements, so changing your workstation and making sure that you rest your wrist can help.

Get more self-care tips for carpal tunnel syndrome here.

Do I need surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome?

With early recognition and treatment, it is possible to reverse the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome with surgery before permanent nerve damage and complications occur.

Surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome is called carpal tunnel release. Surgeons perform around 400,000 carpal tunnel release procedures each year. They can do so in one of two ways: open carpal tunnel release or endoscopic carpal tunnel release.

Open carpal tunnel release

During open carpal tunnel release surgery, a surgeon will make a small incision in your palm. They will then increase the size of the tunnel while decreasing pressure on the median nerve.

Endoscopic carpal tunnel release

With this approach, a surgeon will make one or two small incisions in your hand and then use a small camera to see inside. They will then use a special knife to increase the tunnel size and decrease median nerve pressure.

Recovering from surgery

You may experience some pain, swelling, and stiffness following carpal tunnel surgery. Minor pain in your palm can last several weeks or months.

Keep your hand elevated above your heart to help with recovery. Moving your fingers can help reduce swelling and stiffness.

Learn more about carpal tunnel release here.

What causes carpal tunnel syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome happens when there is compression of the median nerve, which runs through the wrist. Compression of the median nerve can occur as a result of: 

Specifically, median nerve compression can occur as a result of conditions including:

When should I contact a doctor for carpal tunnel syndrome?

Contact a doctor if you experience frequent or severe tingling, numbness, or pain in your hand, fingers, or wrist.

If you receive an early diagnosis of mild carpal tunnel syndrome, it may be possible to cure the condition.

How do doctors diagnose carpal tunnel syndrome?

In order to diagnose carpal tunnel syndrome, your doctor will carry out a physical examination. This can include sensation tests on both the palm and the back of your hand.

Other tests and studies your doctor may carry out include:

  • a nerve conduction study
  • electromyography
  • Phalen’s maneuver, during which your wrists are fully flexed
  • Tinel’s sign test, during which your doctor will touch or tap on the nerve area
  • a compression test
  • an MRI scan
  • an ultrasound scan

In some cases, they may also carry out tests on the forearm and arm to rule out other causes of numbness. Other possible causes of numbness or tingling in the hand include:

Following diagnosis, your doctor will advise on the best course of treatment for you.

Learn more about how doctors diagnose carpal tunnel syndrome here.

Are there any risk factors for carpal tunnel syndrome?

Several factors can increase your risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome. Risk factors for carpal tunnel syndrome include:

  • acromegaly, which is a hormonal disorder that leads to bone and cartilage overgrowth
  • diabetes
  • arthritis
  • a family history of carpal tunnel syndrome
  • previous hand or wrist trauma or fracture
  • hypothyroidism
  • long-term repetitive or strenuous actions, such as typing, sewing, or using tools
  • pregnancy
  • menopause

Also, females are three times more likely to experience carpal tunnel syndrome than males. The condition typically only affects adults.

Are there any complications of carpal tunnel syndrome?

Without treatment, advanced cases of carpal tunnel syndrome can lead to complications. Possible complications of carpal tunnel syndrome include:

Contact your doctor as soon as you experience symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. Early diagnosis and treatment can help reduce the risk of complications.

Can I prevent carpal tunnel syndrome?

Not all people with risk factors will get carpal tunnel syndrome, but you can lower your risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome by minimizing pressure on the median nerve. Some measures you can take include:

  • changing or limiting repetitive motions or jarring activities of the hands and wrists
  • ensuring that your keyboard is low enough so that your wrists are not flexed
  • placing your computer mouse at the same level as your keyboard
  • resting your wrist on a wrist pad when not using it
  • not flexing the wrists for long periods of time
  • regularly relaxing and resting your wrist
  • seeking regular medical care and following your treatment plan for underlying conditions

Other frequently asked questions

Here are some other frequently asked questions about carpal tunnel syndrome.

What happens if carpal tunnel syndrome is left untreated?

If you do not receive treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome, you may experience irreversible nerve damage and reduced dexterity. In some cases, this can result in a loss of function of the hand. Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent complications of carpal tunnel syndrome.

What foods should I eat if I have carpal tunnel syndrome?

Foods rich in antioxidants may help reduce the inflammation associated with carpal tunnel syndrome. These foods include:

  • oranges and lemons
  • walnuts and pistachio
  • dark, leafy greens, such as spinach
  • berries, including blueberries, goji berries, and strawberries
  • herbs and spices, such as parsley and turmeric

These foods should be eaten in moderation as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

Will carpal tunnel syndrome go away on its own?

Carpal tunnel syndrome requires treatment to reduce symptoms. Examples of nonsurgical treatments include wearing a wrist brace and making changes to your work desk or daily routine. If you do not treat the condition, it can become severe, and surgery may be necessary.

How should I sleep with carpal tunnel syndrome?

Wearing a night brace or splint while you sleep can help protect your wrist from further damage. You can also wear a wrist support during the day to help alleviate the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Summary

Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when the median nerve becomes compressed. This can happen gradually as a result of repetitive actions, or it can happen suddenly following an injury.

You can usually treat carpal tunnel syndrome without surgery. However, in some cases, your doctor may recommend surgery to alleviate the pressure on the median nerve.

Contact your doctor if you experience tingling, numbness, or pain associated with carpal tunnel syndrome. Early diagnosis and treatment can help reduce the risk of complications.

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Medical Reviewer: Daniel Wiznia, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 May 18
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