You’ve been waking up at night with tingling in your fingers. You’ve noticed your grip has gotten so weak that you can’t unscrew the top from a jar. And while driving, you can’t turn the wheel without a sharp pain shooting from your wrist to your shoulder.
All these symptoms point to carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), a disorder affecting nerves in the hands and fingers. Women are three times more likely than men to suffer the condition, which develops when people do repetitive activities with their hands and wrists all day long—working at a computer, sewing or assembling parts on a factory line.
Because fluid retention is another culprit, some women may be susceptible to CTS during the third trimester of pregnancy. Wrist injuries, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes are also contributing factors.
CTS is caused by pressure on the arm’s median nerve, which extends from the elbow to the palm, thumb and first three fingers. It enters the hand through a “tunnel” in the wrist.
About an inch in diameter, the tunnel has eight wrist bones on its top and sides and a tough, flexible carpal ligament across its base on the palm side of the wrist. Inside the tunnel, the median nerve is surrounded by nine tendons connecting the hand and finger bones to the muscles.
Repetitive or awkward movements can cause these tendons to thicken or swell, which in turn compresses the median nerve and results in CTS.
See your doctor if your palm, thumb and first three fingers (but not your pinky):
- are often numb
- feel but don’t look swollen
- can’t tell hot from cold
- become clumsy or nonuseful
- tingle after the wrist is bent for 60 seconds or less
To diagnose CTS, your doctor will review your medical and employment history. He or she may look for muscle damage or place pressure on the median nerve to see if symptoms appear.
Your doctor may also recommend a nerve conduction study to see if electrical impulses along the median nerve slow down in the carpal tunnel.
In mild cases, your doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen or naproxen, along with a nighttime wrist brace to keep the joint aligned. In more serious cases, a cortisone injection in the carpal tunnel can help shrink the inflamed tendons, bringing several months of relief.
But for permanent relief, an outpatient procedure called a carpal tunnel release is often the best option. During this procedure, a surgeon snips the carpal ligament to relieve pressure on the median nerve. Though full recovery and rehabilitation of the wrist may take several months, symptoms disappear for good in most cases.
As yet, there are no proven ways to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome, but health experts say taking these steps may reduce your risk of developing it:
- losing excess weight
- frequently resting the hands while at work
- keeping hands level with elbows when typing
- switching hands during repetitive tasks
- quitting smoking
- easing up when gripping pens or pressing computer keys