What is carpal tunnel syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a medical condition in the hand, wrist and fingers that is caused when excessive pressure is put on the median nerve in the wrist. The median nerve runs down the forearm and through the wrist on the palm side through the carpal tunnel.

When there is swelling and the “tunnel” is compressed, the patient may feel numbness, weakness or pain that radiates up the arm.

Causes of carpal tunnel syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome is typically caused by a variety of risk factors that eventually develop into the condition. The condition typically begins gradually as pressure is put on the median nerve in the wrist. If left untreated, the compression can intensify to cause severe pain.

Other causes of carpal tunnel syndrome include:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Diabetes
  • Wrist fractures

Risk factors for carpal tunnel syndrome

Risk factors for carpal tunnel syndrome are:

  • Gender — women develop carpal tunnel syndrome more frequently than men
  • Weight — people who carry excess weight develop carpal tunnel syndrome more often than those who are fit
  • Career choice — a career that requires repetitive hand movements can put you at higher risk for carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Small wrists — people with smaller wrists are more likely to develop carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Menopause
  • Thyroid disorders

Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome

The most common symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome are numbness and tingling in the palm of the hand, fingers or wrist. These symptoms are often worse at night. The middle finger, index finger and thumb are most commonly impacted.

Other symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include:

  • Inability or difficulty managing activities involving the wrist such as making a list, working with small objects or gripping objects with hands
  • Weakness in the hand
  • Swollen feeling in fingers

Diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome is diagnosed in a hand/wrist exam by an orthopedic specialist or primary care provider.

Your physician will take a complete medical history to understand your daily activities as well as discover if you or any of your family members have a history of hypothyroidism, diabetes or arthritis.

The physician also may order an x-ray, blood tests, nerve test or an electromyogram to rule out more serious wrist conditions such as arthritis or fractures.

Treatments for carpal tunnel syndrome

To minimize the damage caused by carpal tunnel syndrome, it is important to start treatment right away.

Treatment for early stages of carpal tunnel syndrome include rest, ice compresses and anti-inflammatory medications.

If the pain becomes more intense, splinting/bracing could help.

In more severe cases, Mercy Health offers the following medical and surgical treatments for carpal tunnel syndrome:

  • Prescription medications
  • Corticosteroid injections
  • Carpal tunnel release surgery is indicated if the carpal tunnel syndrome is severe and not responding to other less invasive treatment therapies

Recovery from carpal tunnel surgery

Recovery from carpal tunnel surgery is a slow process. If the median nerve has been compressed for an extended period, recovery can take months.

After surgery, your orthopedic surgeon will often splint your wrist and recommend physical therapy to strengthen the wrist and hands.

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