Most people have heard of carpal tunnel syndrome and may assume that if they have wrist pain or a sore hand, that must be the underlying cause.
However, that’s not necessarily the case.
What exactly is carpal tunnel?
The carpal tunnel is an inch-wide passageway in the wrist that encloses tendons that control movement in the thumb and fingers. It also contains the median nerve, which goes down the forearm, through the tunnel and into the hand. It’s this nerve that controls movement of the thumb and allows sensation in some of the fingers.
When the tissues around the carpal tunnel swell, they press on the structures inside it, including the median nerve. That pressure causes the symptoms we normally associate with carpal tunnel syndrome: tingling, numbness, pain and a feeling of weakness—or some combination of these things.
There are different underlying causes for this problem, with the most familiar one probably being overuse of the hand and wrist. This often happens in the workplace from repetitive motion. People who key data into computers all day or those who use vibrating hand tools are susceptible, for example.
How do I know if I have carpal tunnel?
Your joint specialist is best equipped to determine if what you have is in fact carpal tunnel syndrome. He or she will ask you what makes your pain worse—for example, sleeping, holding your hand in a fixed position for a long time, and so on.
Then you’ll receive a physical examination. Tapping on the median nerve will usually cause tingling if you have carpal tunnel, and there will likely be weakness in the muscles around the base of your thumb.
Finally, there are tests that involve measuring the electrical signal going through the median nerve and imaging procedures like ultrasounds, X-rays and MRI scans.
What else could it be?
Other conditions that can cause pain in the hands and wrists include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis.
This usually causes pain in the knuckles instead of along the track of the nerve, and it frequently affects both hands at the same time.
- Neck problems.
Although the pain may seem to be concentrated in your hand, it may actually be coming from pressure on the nerves in your neck.
- An elbow issue.
If the “funny bone” nerve that runs through your elbow gets inflamed, this can cause pain in your hand too. However, this usually causes your pinky and ring fingers to hurt instead of the other three, which is typical in carpal tunnel.
People with diabetes often end up with nerve damage, and this can affect the median nerve as well.
The tendons that run through the carpal tunnel alongside the median nerve can become inflamed, and that can mimic some of the symptoms of carpal tunnel.
- Sprains or strains.
Even if the median nerve isn’t damaged, your wrist can be painful and stiff following an injury or overuse.
- Compartment syndrome.
Fascia is a protective sheath the body uses to enclose muscle groups, nerves and blood vessels. When one of these “compartments” gets swollen, usually because of an injury, it can closely mimic carpal tunnel.
There are numerous other conditions that can also masquerade as carpal tunnel syndrome, which is why it’s important to get checked out by a physician who specializes in joints.
What about treatment?
Because we use our hands all the time, we may not allow the injury to heal. Carpal tunnel and many of these other conditions probably won’t go away on their own without treatment. However, surgery may not be necessary.
There are non-surgical options for carpal tunnel and other types of wrist and hand pain. Bracing can keep the joint from being re-injured by overstretching or overusing it. Also consider VisCare-flex® and Progeni-flex™, two treatments that use natural methods to lubricate and restore your wrist joint without invasive surgery.
Contact the joint specialists at Flexogenix today and get your hands back to working the way they should—without pain.