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What is carpal tunnel syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a relatively common condition that develops when the median nerve – a major nerve that provides sensation and muscle control to the hand – becomes squeezed or compressed as it travels through a narrow passageway in the wrist (the carpal tunnel). Because this passageway is very rigid, it has minimal capacity to stretch or otherwise increase in size to accommodate swelling in the surrounding tissues. In particular, if the synovial membrane that lines the wrist joint becomes inflamed due to overuse or arthritis, it can take up significant space in the carpal tunnel and pressure the median nerve.

What does carpal tunnel syndrome feel like?

The symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome may include:

  • Pain, numbness, tingling and burning sensations in the hand, especially in the thumb and index, middle and ring fingers
  • Intermittent shock-like sensations that radiate from the wrist to the thumb and index, middle and ring fingers
  • Muscle weakness in the hand that makes it difficult to perform fine movements, such as fastening buttons
  • A propensity to drop objects due to a loss of proprioception (awareness of the positioning of the hand)
  • Pain or tingling sensations that travel upward from the forearm to the shoulder

In many cases, the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome develop slowly without a specific injury. Many people first notice discomfort after holding an object, such as a phone or book, with a bent wrist for a long period of time. Over time, the pressure on the median nerve may increase, causing the symptoms to occur more frequently or persist for longer periods of time.

How is carpal tunnel syndrome treated?

When carpal tunnel syndrome is diagnosed and treated early, its symptoms can often be addressed effectively without surgery. Some options include:

  • Bracing – A brace can be worn during certain activities to keep the wrist in a straight or neutral position and reduce pressure on the median nerve.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – Over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen and naproxen can help relieve pain and inflammation.
  • Lifestyle modifications – Activities that involve holding the hand and wrist in the same position for an extended period of time – particularly if the wrist is flexed or extended – often aggravate symptoms.
  • Corticosteroid injections – Injecting a powerful anti-inflammatory medication directly into the carpal tunnel can provide lasting (but temporary) relief.
  • Physical therapy – Physician-recommended nerve-gliding exercising can help the median nerve pass more freely through the carpal tunnel.

If nonsurgical treatment does provide effective relief within several weeks, a physician may recommend a surgical procedure to relieve pressure on the median nerve.

If you’d like to learn more about treatment options for carpal tunnel syndrome – both conservative and surgical – you are welcome to contact Advanced Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine of Houston, TX.