Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: Causes and Cures

Many types of work lead to repetitive muscle movements. Whether you sit at a desk all day or work in an assembly line, continual use of your hands and wrists can sometimes lead to severe pain in the form of carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). Knowing how to identify it and relieve its symptoms can lead to more productivity and less pain at work.

What is CTS?

CTS is a condition caused by pressure on the median nerve, which runs from your forearm to your palm; your median nerve controls hand movement, as well as feeling in your palm and most of your fingers. The carpal tunnel, made up of bones and ligament, is located at your wrist and houses the median nerve as well as other tendons. Overusing your wrists can cause inflammation or swelling in these tendons, which press on the nerve and cause pain, numbness, or weakness.

What causes CTS?

Activities or conditions that lead to tendon inflammation and swelling can cause CTS-related pain: pregnancy, obesity, old wrist fractures, or prolonged and inappropriate use of hands and wrists. CTS often stems from a genetic predisposition to a smaller carpal tunnel, but can also be caused from work-related activities such as using vibrating tools or typing for extended periods of time. Sometimes the condition has no known cause.

I’m not sure if I have CTS. What does it feel like?

CTS symptoms begin gradually; look for numbness, burning, itching, or tingling in your palm and fingers. Some people may also find it difficult to grip objects, and others may not be able to distinguish between hot and cold.

Symptoms of CTS often mimic tendonitis; see your doctor to determine what condition you may have, because treatments can differ.

I already have CTS. How can I alleviate the pain?

There are a number of cures for CTS depending on its severity. For mild cases, changing work habits may be sufficient: take more breaks between keyboard usage, stretch hands and wrists regularly, keep your wrists straight, and control your posture.

Moderate CTS pain can be alleviated with anti-inflammatory drugs or vitamin B supplements, exercise, and yoga. Your doctor may also inject cortisone in your wrists to relieve swelling, require you to apply ice at the pain source, or simply wear a splint at bedtime.

In extreme cases, surgery may be required if CTS pain is left untreated for more than six months. Carpal tunnel surgery is fairly common and involves severing bands of tissue around the wrist that place pressure on the median nerve. Though surgery quickly alleviates pain, recovery and subsequent physical therapy can take months.

How do I prevent CTS?

Maintaining a healthy diet and exercise regimen, using ergonomic tools at work, and resting frequently during repetitive activities allows tendons in your wrists to release fluid and operate optimally. If you have a condition such as arthritis or diabetes, monitoring them normally can also prevent CTS.

It may be beneficial to evaluate your workday for activities that increase your risk for CTS; pay attention to activities that require repeated wrist movement or strain, and take breaks from them as needed.

Image credit: Flickr