Why does your wrist hurt?
You’re at home typing away on your computer and you notice that your wrist hurts and your fingers are slightly numb. So, you take a break and the symptoms go away. A few days later, you’re at work and notice the same thing, but it takes longer for the symptoms to go away. What is going on? How do you stop the feeling from occurring?
Carpal tunnel is when the median nerve, which runs from your forearm through your wrist to your hand gets compressed. The main function of the median nerve is to provide sensation to the palm of your hand, thumb and fingers (not your little finger) and send signals to move your thumb. Anything that irritates the median nerve can cause carpel tunnel, so there isn’t usually one singular cause. There are several things that can place you at increased risk for developing it, such as being female because the space the median nerve travels through in your wrist is naturally smaller, anything that alters the space like breaking or dislocating your wrist, nerve damage from chronic conditions, inflammatory illness like arthritis, being obese and doing repetitive or prolonged motions that require flexing of the wrist.
Symptoms start gradually and include intermittent numbness/tingling to your thumb, index, middle and ring fingers with pain in your wrist/palm of your hand. Your little finger is not usually affected because the sensation for it is supplied by a different nerve. Some people describe the pain as an electric shock type feeling. As the symptoms become more severe, the pain can travel up your arm and begins occurring all the time. Also, as the median nerve is compressed more, you can experience weakness in your hand leading you to drop things. It is important to note that if you don’t get treatment, the nerve and muscle damage can be permanent.
It is key to start treatment as early as possible. If your symptoms are mild to moderate and have been present for less than 10 months, your doctor is most likely going to do nonsurgical interventions first. This means taking frequent breaks from repetitive motions and avoiding activities that increase symptoms. It can be helpful to rotate your wrists and stretch your palms and fingers. Sometimes applying ice packs can decrease inflammation and splinting your wrists, especially at night, keeps your wrists in a neutral position that promotes less compression on the median nerve. If you are overweight, losing weight can also help decrease the pressure. Your doctor may also recommend taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen, to relieve pain and reduce swelling. Another possible option is injecting corticosteroids directly into your wrist. If your symptoms aren’t relieved by these measures or are severe, your doctor may recommend surgery. The goal is to relieve the pressure by cutting the ligament that is pressing on the nerve, which is why it is called a carpel tunnel release.
While there isn’t anything specific that can be done to prevent carpal tunnel, there are things that you can do to minimize the stress placed on your hands and wrists. It is important to take frequent breaks from activities that require you to keep your wrists bent for extended periods of time. When performing tasks, avoid bending your wrists all the way in one direction or the other. Be sure to learn proper hand positioning for any task you are going to perform. Reduce the force you apply and relax your grip when performing tasks. Maintain good posture—this isn’t just for your wrists, but your entire body. Try to keep your wrists and hands warm because colder temperatures can lead to stiffness.
Carpal tunnel can be painful, but it is also easily avoidable. Now that you know ways to treat and prevent it, you should be able to reduce your level of discomfort. If you have any questions or concerns, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Carpal Tunnel Syndrome page at https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases–conditions/carpal-tunnel-syndrome/