The carpal tunnel is a narrow hollow that runs through the wrist to the hand, encasing the median nerve.
The median nerve is responsible for sending sensations in the form of nerve signals to the thumb and first three fingers of the hand. Signals from the median nerve also enable motor function around the base of the thumb.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a medical condition caused by the compression of the median nerve.
This pressure can come from underlying medical conditions such as arthritis, injuries to the hand and wrist or even repetitive wrist and hand motions.
While there is often no single cause of carpal tunnel syndrome, a combination of multiple risk factors may eventually cause a person to develop the condition.
If you work a job or pursue a hobby that places frequent or significant stress on your hands and wrists, you may have a higher chance of developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
The good news is that mild cases of carpal tunnel syndrome respond well to treatment, which usually consists of a combination of physical therapy, exercise and pain medication.
More severe cases, meanwhile, can be treated with steroid injections or carpal tunnel syndrome surgery.
Of course, prevention is always better than cure, and fortunately, there are many ways to protect yourself from developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
Read on for an in-depth perspective on this increasingly common condition and what you can do to keep it at bay.
Risk Factors for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Certain factors, while they don’t directly cause carpal tunnel syndrome, increase a person’s risk of compressing, stressing or straining the median nerve.
These factors may include the following, among others (1,2,3):
- Injury – Wrist and hand fractures or dislocations can constrict the carpal tunnel and squeeze the median nerve.
- Underlying Medical Conditions – Inflammatory conditions such as arthritis can cause the tendons in the wrist to swell, constricting the median nerve. Certain chronic illnesses like diabetes may also increase the risk of nerve damage and, thus, render the median nerve more susceptible to irritation. Other medical conditions, such as kidney failure, thyroid disorders, lymphedema and menopause, have also been shown to elevate a person’s risk for developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Gender – Women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB) are likely to have smaller carpal tunnels than men and those assigned male at birth (AMAB). This may be one reason women and people AFAB are diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome more frequently.
- Bodily Fluid Retention – Changes in bodily fluid levels may cause the tissues surrounding the carpal tunnel to swell and compress the median nerve. These fluctuations are especially common during pregnancy and menopause. Cases of carpal tunnel syndrome that develop during pregnancy usually resolve themselves on their own after the birth.
- Work-Related Factors – Many studies have speculated on a possible correlation between a person’s risk of carpal tunnel syndrome and certain occupational conditions. Poor workstation ergonomics that keep the wrist in a flexed position for long periods of time, working with vibrating tools, repetitive hand and wrist movements and cold temperatures may all increase a person’s susceptibility to wrist conditions and injuries.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Symptoms
Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome usually set in mildly and gradually grow more severe.
These might include tingling, burning pain or numbness in the fingers, sensations that some patients compare to an electric shock. These symptoms are usually felt in the thumb, index, middle and ring fingers, but the little finger is typically unaffected.
The numbness and tingling sensations may move further up the arm from the hand and wrist. The hand and wrist may also become more consistently numb over time.
Carpal tunnel syndrome may also weaken the muscles in the hand, many of which are controlled by the median nerve.
People who suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome may, thus, experience a loss of manual dexterity and drop objects more frequently, and their grip strength may also significantly diminish.
Preventing Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
There are no guaranteed strategies to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome.
However, the following steps can minimise strain and stress on the hand and wrist and help protect the median nerve:
- Reduce the amount of force you exert when using your hands. Make a conscious effort to relax your grip if you tend to hold things tightly. If your work involves using computers, cash registers, or other devices with keyboards, try to press down on the keys as softly as possible.
- Rest your hands and wrists frequently throughout the work day. Stretching and bending them gently for a few minutes hourly is recommended.
- Observe proper form and posture. Try to avoid flexing your wrist all the way up or down. If you use a keyboard, you should hold your wrists directly over the keys in a relaxed, moderate position. Slouching also places unnecessary pressure off your neck and shoulders, which can radiate down your arm to your hands and fingers. Sitting up straight can also relieve this pressure and help prevent neck and back pain as well as carpal tunnel syndrome.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a painful condition that can severely impair your daily functioning and quality of life.
Thus, it’s imperative for people at risk to proactively protect their hands and wrists so that they can continue their daily activities with minimal pain and discomfort.