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How to Recognize, Prevent, and Treat Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

In this age of keyboards, buttons and touchpads, hand conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) has become a common problem. What's crucial is to detect CTS as what it is and take the early steps to address it. But most people often keep them in pain longer, thinking that it will go away over time.

And once the pain goes away, they don’t even bother finding out how to keep it from coming back. You can be different by finding out how to address and stop the CTS pain.

Carpal Tunnel vs. Other Wrist and Upper Arm Injuries

First and foremost, you should visit your GP to find out whether you have CTS or some other problem. This is to avoid doing exercises that can hurt your wrist rather than helping it. Other common problems that mimic CTS like wrist pain include:

  • Muscle, Ligament or Tendon Injuries – Several soft tissue injuries may cause CTS like pain such as strains, sprains, contusions and tendonitis. Most often, these injuries result from a variety of incidents. You may hurt your wrist by falling and catching yourself in an awkward way, twisting your arm muscles at an odd angle, or getting a blow during sports or other events. Regular stretching can help improve flexibility and lower your chances of having these types of injuries.
  • Pinched Nerves – A pinched nerve occurs when a nerve is compressed by surrounding tissue, causing the nerve to become inflamed and disrupting its functionality. Pinched nerves can have a variety of causes, including poor posture, arthritis, obesity, and—you guessed it—carpal tunnel syndrome. If a nerve remains pinched for an extended period of time, chronic pain and nerve damage can result.
  • Arthritis – Joint strain, auto-immune disease and genetics are all potential factors in determining whether you will get arthritis. There are over 100 types of arthritis, but a common symptom is a painful stiffness and swollenness of the joints that can feel similar to CTS. It is most common in people age 55 and over, though it can happen (sometimes temporarily, due to allergies or infections) to younger individuals as well.
  • Bone Dislocation/Fracture – Bone dislocations or fractures should be treated as emergency injuries. It is possible not to realize a bone is broken or dislocated at the time or breaking or dislocation due to distractions, extreme temperatures and even to shock. A broken bone will usually be highly painful to touch, and carpal tunnel exercises would be virtually impossible to perform. Contact a doctor immediately if you think you might have a broken or dislocated bone in your wrist.

Your wrists and hands are some of the most valuable instruments on your body, so it’s important to take special care when attempting to treat injuries in the wrist and upper arm area. If none of the above causes seem likely to you, check out the section below to find out the potential causes of carpal tunnel syndrome and exactly why it hurts the way it does.

Looking Inside the Wrist – What Happens During Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

The image shows a transverse cross-sectional view at the level of the wrist. The diagram labels the carpal bones, which are the small bones in the wrist that form the carpal tunnel where the median nerve and tendons pass through. The bones labeled include the trapezium, trapezoid, capitate, and hamate, which are part of the two rows of carpal bones. The cross-section also shows the passageways for tendons and nerves, and might be indicating areas of interest or common sites of compression or injury. The specific details such as color highlights or dots could represent anatomical features like ligaments, nerve pathways, or areas of clinical significance such as common sites for carpal tunnel syndrome pressure.
Figure 1: Transverse section at the wrist (Gray's anatomy diagram).

Carpal tunnel syndrome results when the median nerve within your carpal tunnel, which is a tunnel about the width of your thumb that runs up along the palm side of your upper arm, becomes pinched. The median nerve controls your hand and the 9 tendons that give you the ability to bend your fingers. Pinching generally occurs due to combined genetic and environmental factors, including muscle strain associated with awkward, difficult or repetitive movements, obesity, diabetes, pregnancy, and possibly the practice of sleeping on your side.

Once a nerve is pinched, it becomes inflamed and painful. The following symptoms are known to be associated with carpal tunnel syndrome:

  • Painful numbness
  • Outward-radiating pain that can be either sharp, aching or burning
  • "Pins and needles" painful tingling, similar to the sensation of a hand that has "fallen asleep"
  • Muscle weakness that can cause you to drop things or be unable to grip things with the affected hand
  • Unusual dryness of the skin on the hand due to reduced sweating

Chronic pain and permanent nerve damage can occur when carpal tunnel syndrome is left untreated. To alleviate the uncomfortable symptoms associated with carpal tunnel, try the exercises in the following section.

Toughening Up the Tendons – Exercises to Alleviate and Prevent Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Symptoms

The image shows a pair of hands with untreated carpal tunnel syndrome.

The symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome can sometimes be alleviated in mild to moderate cases through a series of simple "nerve-gliding" and "tendon-gliding" hand exercises that you can learn to do yourself (preferably with your doctor’s approval, so you can be sure it will not make the situation worse). If doing any of these exercises makes your hand feel noticeably worse, discontinue the exercise immediately.

  • "Nerve Gliding" – This type of exercise can potentially worsen your hand’s condition if the nerve is already pinched, so be sure to consult with your doctor before trying it and use it only sparingly. For this exercise, hold your wrist in a neutral (non-flexed) position. Make a fist, then extend your thumb and fingers straight out. Tilt your hand backwards, and then turn your hand palm-side-up and use your other hand to gently tug your thumb.
  • "Tendon-Gliding" – To try tendon-gliding, first hold your hand vertically with fingers extended. Bend your fingers at the second knuckle with your thumb still extended, and then bend your fingers at the first knuckle with your thumb still extended to form a fist. Extend fingers out horizontally from your knuckles, return them to the fist position, and repeat.
  • Compensate for Repetitive Motions – Compensate for repetitive motions with hand motions that move your muscles in different ways. For example, typing requires outstretched hands and bent fingers, so you can compensate for the repetitive typing motions by alternately clenching your hands tightly and stretching your fingers out straight several times.

Though surgery is sometimes a necessity in dealing with a pinched carpal tunnel nerve, exercises can potentially be of help, particularly in combination with other measures such as splinting the affected arm and applying corticosteroids. Keeping your muscles flexible and strong through regular arm exercises can help you to prevent future instances of carpal tunnel syndrome, but you may also want to consider occasionally calling rather than constantly texting once in a while—just in case.

⚠️ Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only and should not be considered as medical advice. Please consult a healthcare professional for personalized advice.