What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Picture of a woman sitting on a bed and holding her hand in pain.

Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when pressure is exerted on the median nerve, which runs down the forearm and into the hand through a narrow passageway in the wrist (the carpal tunnel). The median nerve is responsible for providing sensation to and supporting movement of the forearm, wrist, hand, thumb, and index, middle, and ring fingers.

Carpal Tunnel Causes

As was noted above, carpal tunnel syndrome develops when the median nerve becomes compressed. This compression can be caused by a variety of issues, such as:

  • Arthritis
  • Dislocations
  • Fractures
  • Inflammation
  • Swelling
  • Tumors

Carpal Tunnel Risk Factors

The following risk factors can increase someone’s chances of developing carpal tunnel syndrome:

  • Being a woman
  • Having a smaller carpal tunnel
  • Being obese
  • Being pregnant
  • Going through menopause
  • Having a condition that commonly causes nerve damage (for example, diabetes)
  • Having a condition that frequently causes inflammation (such as rheumatoid arthritis)
  • Having a condition that commonly causes fluid retention (for instance, kidney failure or lymphedema)
  • Taking certain medications (for example, anastrozole)
  • Repeatedly flexing the wrist for an extended period of time (for instance, while working on an assembly line)
  • Handling vibrating tools

It’s important to remember that having one or more of these risk factors does not necessarily mean that someone will develop carpal tunnel syndrome. Likewise, it’s possible to develop this condition without having any known risk factors.

Carpal Tunnel Symptoms

Carpal tunnel syndrome can cause the following symptoms in the affected fingers, hand, wrist, and forearm:

  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Pain
  • A burning sensation
  • A shock-like sensation
  • Weakness

These symptoms are most likely to occur in the thumb and the index, middle, and ring fingers, rather than the pinky. They also tend to happen more frequently during the night. Carpal tunnel symptoms usually begin gradually and worsen over time, and it’s important to promptly seek treatment to avoid permanent muscle and nerve damage.

Carpal Tunnel Treatment

Many people are able to relieve their carpal tunnel symptoms using conservative treatment methods, which may include:

  • Taking medication
  • Undergoing corticosteroid injections
  • Using cold packs
  • Bracing or splinting the affected wrist
  • Performing nerve-gliding exercises
  • Making certain lifestyle changes (for example, avoiding certain activities entirely or taking more frequent breaks while performing those activities)

In more severe cases, carpal tunnel treatment may involve surgery to relieve pressure on the median nerve. During a carpal tunnel release procedure, the surgeon cuts the transverse carpal ligament, which forms the roof of the carpal tunnel. Doing so increases the size of the tunnel, thereby relieving pressure and allowing for more blood flow.

Get the Care You Need

Does it sound like you might have carpal tunnel syndrome? For treatment of this and many other hand and wrist conditions, turn to North Carolina Orthopaedic Clinic, a respected provider that has been in operation since 2003. Based in Durham, NC, we proudly serve patients throughout this community, and our fellowship-trained physicians would be happy to assist you with all of your orthopedic needs. Contact us today to set up an appointment at a date and time that’s convenient for you.