The bane of office workers, restaurant servers, carpenters, and journalists, carpal tunnel syndrome is a painful reminder of how much many of us depend on our hands to earn a living. At first, symptoms include numbness, tingling, loss of strength or flexibility, and pain. Yet carpal tunnel can progress over time, with a very small percentage of patients developing permanent injury. That's why it's best to address symptoms head-on.
The good news is that most people with carpal tunnel syndrome recover completely and avoid injuring themselves again by changing the way they work. What's more, those with carpal tunnel can make other changes that ease the pain.
Carpal tunnel syndrome isn't something that happens overnight. It's a cumulative trauma disorder that develops over time when your hands and wrists perform repetitive movements.
Think of New York City's Holland Tunnel. Imagine what a pain it is to try to get through it during rush hour as multiple lanes of traffic fight to squeeze into two-lane tubes. Your wrist, known as the carpal tunnel, is a lot like the tunnel under the Hudson River during rush hour. When you use your hand in repeated motions—like writing, typing, or hammering—the tendons, which run like lanes through your wrist, swell and compress the median nerve that runs to your hand.
Women are twice as likely as men to experience carpal tunnel syndrome. Symptoms normally affect one hand but can be present in both. Sometimes the affected hand will feel numb or tingle, or feel like it's 'fallen asleep.'
When the feeling comes, it's time to look for relief. Here's how.
Wrist and hand pain is not always the result of carpal tunnel syndrome and could actually be the sign of a more serious illness, cautions physical therapist Susan Isernhagen. "If you get a crackly or crunchy feeling in your wrist when you exercise it, that's not a sign of carpal tunnel syndrome," she says. "It may be a symptom of osteoarthritis." Ask your doctor to check it out.
Stephen Cash, M.D., is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in hand surgery. He practices in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania.
Colin Hall, M.D., is a professor of neurology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine.
Susan Isernhagen is a physical therapist and COO of DSI Work Solutions in Duluth, Minnesota. She acts as a consultant to industries to help reduce work injuries and rehabilitate injured workers.
You don't want to completely tie up traffic in your wrist. Don't wrap your wrist with an elastic bandage, because you could wrap it too tight and cut off the circulation, says Isernhagen.
"Squeezing motions of the fingers will help relieve the tingling feeling," Isernhagen says. Press your fingers into your palm, then stretch them way back and hold. Repeat.
"Don't concentrate pressure at the base of the wrist when using hand tools. Use your elbow and shoulder as much as possible," recommends Isernhagen.