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Is Your Wrist Pain a Sign of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

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Posted by Hesham Abdelfattah, MD

Around 1 in 5 people is affected by carpal tunnel syndrome, a common condition marked by numbness or decreased feeling in the fingers and wrist. I’ve seen patients whose carpal tunnel symptoms are so painful that they needed surgery. But surgery can often be avoided when people seek help for carpal tunnel symptoms sooner.

Early on, many people find that their carpal tunnel syndrome is annoying but manageable. The problem is the condition tends to get worse over time. Diagnosing and treating carpal tunnel early is critical for easing a person’s discomfort and preventing lasting nerve damage.

Carpal tunnel syndrome can be confused with other conditions affecting the hand or wrist, including arthritis, tendonitis, or other types of nerve compression. If you’re experiencing discomfort, numbness or tingling in your wrist, hand or fingers and aren’t sure of the cause, I encourage you to answer these questions.

Where does your wrist hurt the most?

Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when pressure is placed on your median nerve, a major nerve in your hand that gives feeling to all of your fingers except your pinky. The median nerve passes through the carpal tunnel, a path made of bone and ligament that runs through the base of your hand. If your wrist becomes swollen, the carpal tunnel can become narrower and compress the median nerve, causing pain or numbness. 

If you have problems with your carpal tunnel, you may experience things such as:

  • Pain, numbness, tingling, or burning in your thumb and first three fingers. The pain can shoot up your forearm toward your shoulder.
  • Intermittent shock-like sensations that start from your forearm and go out toward your fingers.
  • Weakness or clumsiness in your fingers or hands that makes it harder to do things like button a shirt or write. You may also be more likely to drop things.
  • In severe cases, numbness in your fingers may make it hard to tell if something is hot or cold to the touch. This can increase your risk for burns.

How serious is your pain and when do you have it?

Discomfort caused by carpal tunnel syndrome starts off mild. Sometimes the feeling is more noticeable in the dominant hand; other times it affects both hands. The sensations might come and go at first, and you may notice them more at night. The pain might wake you up, and you may find that shaking out your hand gives you some relief.

As the condition progresses, you might start to notice pain during the day. This tends to be worse when you’re engaging in an activity where your wrist is bent, like driving, holding a book, talking on the phone, typing, or writing. Eventually it may become difficult to perform movements that involve pinching or gripping, like making a fist.

Since carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms can come and go, you may mistakenly believe that whatever is causing your pain has cleared up. But without treatment, the problem won’t go away.

Do you have any risk factors for carpal tunnel syndrome?

Anyone can be affected by carpal tunnel syndrome, but it’s more common in certain people. You may be more prone to the condition if you:

  • Have a family history of carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Are older or were assigned female at birth
  • Perform daily activities that involve repetitive hand or wrist motions  that put your hand or wrist in a strained position for long periods 
  • Use vibrating hand tools. Capral tunnel syndrome is a common problem for people who work in manufacturing, sewing, cleaning, or meatpacking industries
  • Have certain health problems, including diabetes or a thyroid issue
  • Are pregnant. Hormone-related swelling may cause carpal tunnel syndrome during pregnancy
  • Had an injury that caused your wrist to swell, like a strain or fracture
  • Have obesity

Do you have arthritis?

Arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome are two different conditions, but have similar symptoms. Arthritis can cause swelling in the wrist or the carpal tunnel tendons. Spurs are created around the wrist bone, which can potentially lead to the development of carpal tunnel syndrome. Arthritis can also make carpal tunnel syndrome worse.

Get the correct diagnoses and treatment

When I see someone who is showing possible carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms, I check the function and strength of their fingers and wrists, and I look for signs of inflammation. These things help me confirm the diagnosis.

If someone does have carpal tunnel syndrome, the treatments I select depend on the severity of their swelling. Some of my patients with mild symptoms see an improvement with lifestyle changes like wearing a splint or brace, or cutting back on activities that cause wrist pain.

They may also need to take over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve) to help relieve pain and reduce inflammation. Sometimes injections with a corticosteroid can help relieve painful symptoms or help calm a flare-up of symptoms. 

In more advanced cases, I may recommend hand surgery to take pressure off the median nerve. The most important point to remember is that you shouldn’t ignore any wrist pain. If you do have carpal tunnel syndrome, the sooner it is treated, the better.

Connect with the experts

Schedule an appointment with a Temple Health hand specialist to find relief from your symptoms today. Our Hand & Upper Extremity Center offers specialized treatment and care for injuries and conditions affecting the fingers, hand, wrist, or elbow.

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