We hear a lot about ailments such as “gamer’s thumb” or “cell phone elbow” claiming to be the “new carpal tunnel syndrome.” So we thought it was worth revisiting the original condition to which they are being compared.
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, carpal tunnel syndrome is a common condition that causes pain, numbness and tingling in the hand and arm. The condition occurs when one of the major nerves to the hand – the median nerve – is squeezed or compressed as it travels through the wrist.
Dr. Jeanine Andersson, one of our hand and upper extremity specialists, says the exact cause is not always known, but risk factors include obesity, thyroid problems, diabetes, smoking, and occupations that require constant gripping, grasping and lifting. “We also know from twin studies that it runs in families,” she adds.
“Symptoms include waking up at night due to numbness and tingling,” she says. “Some people’s hands fall asleep while they are driving or holding a book. Or some people don’t feel a lot of numbness, but instead pain and burning.”
In most patients, carpal tunnel syndrome gets worse over time, so early diagnosis and treatment are important.
“Most folks tell me they have symptoms, then they go away,” Dr. Andersson says. “Then they become more frequent. By the time they are in my office, they are waking up nightly with numbness, or the pain has gotten so bad that it has brought them in.”
For patients who are having intermittent symptoms, maybe once or twice a week, Dr. Andersson advises a splint at night. “When it interferes with your quality of life, come in,” she says.
That might include constant numbness or clumsiness. For example, patients describe difficulty buttoning their shirt. “These are definitely danger signs,” she says. “They need to come in.”
The good news is that if diagnosed and treated early, the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome can often be relieved without surgery. If your diagnosis is uncertain or if your symptoms are mild, your doctor will recommend nonsurgical treatment first. Such treatments may include bracing or splinting, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, activity changes, nerve gliding exercises, or steroid injections.