Get relief from carpal tunnel syndrome pain
There are many treatments available to help manage and treat pain and other symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. Adding a home exercise program to your carpal tunnel treatment plan may help decrease your frustrating numbness, tingling, burning, or clumsiness.
What causes carpal tunnel syndrome?
Carpal tunnel syndrome develops over time, with women more likely to be affected than men. It happens when the median nerve, which crosses from the arm into the hand, is repeatedly squeezed or pressed. In this spot, the nerve goes through a narrow passage of ligaments and bones known as the carpal tunnel.
The carpal tunnel might be too narrow because of:
- An injury
- A tumor or cyst in the wrist
- Extra fluid in the body
- Rheumatoid arthritis or other chronic health conditions
Irritation in the tissues of the wrist from repetitive movements, like typing or working on an assembly line, may also cause swelling that makes the carpal tunnel more narrow than usual. Sometimes the cause is unknown.
Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome
Symptoms often start out mild and worsen over time. Numbness or tingling in one or both hands that gets worse at night is often the first symptom.
Without treatment, symptoms usually get worse. You may have numbness and tingling along with:
- A feeling of weakness in the hand
- Difficulty making a fist
- Feeling like one or both hands are swollen even if they aren't
- Pain in the hand that may travel up to the elbow
Diagnosing carpal tunnel syndrome
To diagnose carpal tunnel syndrome, providers use a combination of medical history, physical examination, tests that check sensation, blood tests, and imaging.
It's important to see your medical provider as soon as possible after noticing symptoms that might be caused by carpal tunnel syndrome. Early treatment will help stop future damage to your median nerve and get you faster relief.
Nonsurgical treatments for carpal tunnel syndrome
Except in the most severe cases, carpal tunnel syndrome care starts with nonsurgical treatments.
Wearing a wrist splint overnight is often the first treatment providers recommend. The splint helps relieve pressure on the nerve by keeping the wrist in a neutral position while you sleep.
Other common treatments are:
- Acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, also known as NSAIDs
- A cortisone injection into the tissue around the carpal tunnel to decrease irritation
- A hot or cold pack on the wrist
- Making changes to how you sit or the tools you use while working
- Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment, a specialized type of hands-on treatment
Though not as common, regular massage therapy and trigger-point therapy with a massage therapist may also decrease the severity of symptoms over time.
Other medical conditions can make the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome worse. Treating other health conditions may help your carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms, too.
Home exercises to decrease carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms
Exercise alone is not enough to prevent or treat carpal tunnel syndrome, but it may be a helpful addition to your treatment plan, especially if you have mild to moderate symptoms.
The most effective exercises to address carpal tunnel syndrome are stretching, nerve gliding exercises, and tendon gliding exercises. These can help reduce pressure and allow the median nerve to move more smoothly through the carpal tunnel. However, if the median nerve is trapped, exercises could cause increased pain, irritation, or even injury. It's normal to feel a stretch or mild pull during exercises, but they should not cause pain.
Exercising the hand and wrist by squeezing and releasing a ball does not reduce pressure on the nerve, but it may help decrease symptoms.
Always talk with your medical provider before starting any new exercise program. Stop exercises and talk with your provider if you have pain while exercising or if you notice worsening symptoms.
Surgical treatments for carpal tunnel syndrome
Many people with carpal tunnel syndrome end up needing carpal tunnel release surgery. This is a common surgery, and most people go home the same day. It usually involves local or regional anesthesia.
During carpal tunnel release, the surgeon will cut a ligament (a band of tissue) that goes around the wrist. This decreases the amount of pressure on the median nerve. Two different surgeries may be used for carpal tunnel release: open release surgery or endoscopic surgery.
● In an open release surgery, the surgeon makes an incision (a cut) that is about two inches long running from the palm of the hand to the wrist. This gives the surgeon a larger open area to perform the surgery.
● In endoscopic surgery, one or two small incisions about a half-inch long each are made in the wrist or palm. A tube with a tiny camera attached is inserted through an incision. The surgeon uses the camera to look at the carpal tunnel, median nerve, and other surrounding tissue. Then a small knife is inserted through the tube to cut the ligament.
If surgery is recommended, your provider will discuss what type is best for you.
Both types of carpal tunnel release surgery are successful in most cases, though some remaining numbness or weakness is common. Many people have decreased symptoms right after surgery, but full recovery may take months. You will likely need to modify work or home activities for several weeks after the procedure.
Your provider may also recommend physical therapy or hand therapy with an occupational therapist to help you recover after surgery. Both can help you regain strength and movement in your hand and wrist. An occupational therapist can also teach you how to modify the things you need to do and recommend adaptive equipment.