By A Show of Hands
It’s an unfortunate medical fact that women are more likely than men to suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome – three times more likely, in fact. But we need not despair: There’s a lot that can be done to alleviate the numbness, tingling, pain, and pressure that accompany this condition. Virtua orthopedic surgeon Andrea Bowers, MD, can explain many causes and treatments of the matter at hand.
Carpal tunnel syndrome: what it is and why it happens
Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is a collection of symptoms that can surface whenever there is increased pressure on the canal (or tunnel) that houses the median nerve, which runs from the forearm through the center of the wrist and into the palm of the hand. This increased pressure can come from several possible causes, including:
- Repetitive stress to the wrist (such as an activity performed regularly in the course of daily work)
- Acute injury or trauma to the area (like a hard fall braced by the base of the hand)
- Inflammation related to hormonal changes
- In rare cases, a tumor or growth
Common risk factors
The influence of hormones is likely why CTS is more common in women than in men. The best evidence for this is the fact that carpal tunnel syndrome is known to suddenly crop up during pregnancy and then disappear after childbirth, points out Dr. Bowers. “It’s also more common during menopause,” she continues.
Further risk factors include a genetic predisposition or certain chronic diseases, including diabetes, hypothyroidism, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and even obesity. What’s more, “smoking also seems to make symptoms worse,” says Dr. Bowers. If you suffer from CTS, add that to the hundreds of other reasons to try to quit now.
When to see your doctor
As stated at the outset of this article, symptoms of CTS include numbness, tingling, pain, and pressure. More specifically, these symptoms will tend to affect the thumb, pointer, and middle fingers, and half of the ring finger. Two other nerves, the ulnar and radial nerves, serve other parts of the hand, so carpal tunnel syndrome and compression of the median nerve aren’t the only culprits of hand problems.
That said, if you’ve noticed any of these symptoms in any part of your hand and have employed basic home treatment (rest, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, or a change in the way you perform tasks with your affected hand) with no relief, you’ll want to see your doctor. “Carpal tunnel syndrome is easier to treat the earlier you catch it,” says Dr. Bowers. “You don’t want to wait until you start experiencing weakness or an inability to perform common tasks to seek medical help.”
Testing and treatment
Before deciding on the best course of treatment, your doctor will want to determine the root cause of the symptoms. If it’s repetitive stress, your treatment plan will likely include changes to your daily habits at work and home, possibly incorporating a splint or ergonomic workplace devices to alleviate pressure on the median nerve during tasks you must continue. If it’s an acute trauma, anti-inflammatories or possibly corticosteroids may be employed until the injury has the time needed to heal. And thankfully, carpal tunnel syndrome that stems from temporary hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy or menopause tends to resolve on its own.
Persistent inflammation that’s not related to repetitive stress, an acute injury, or hormones will be among the trickiest cases of carpal tunnel syndrome, but thankfully there are several tests and treatment options for more stubborn or severe symptoms.
An example of a more advanced test for carpal tunnel syndrome includes electromyography, also known as an EMG or nerve conduction study. “An EMG allows doctors to measure electricity as it passes through the median nerve to determine how severely compressed it is,” explains Dr. Bowers. And as for more advanced treatment options, these include the assistance of a certified hand therapist (this would be an occupational therapist with additional training) or, in the most severe cases, a surgical procedure wherein the doctor will release certain tissues and ligaments that may be constricting the median nerve.
Get the “upper hand”
You don’t have to let carpal tunnel syndrome claim your healthy hands. Get to the doctor if you’re experiencing persistent symptoms that are interfering with your daily life.