This article appears in Winter Boomers magazine.
Incredibly common and easily treatable, carpal tunnel syndrome is sorely misunderstood both by the public and how it’s presented in popular culture, experts say.
Most people even get the name wrong, said orthopedic surgeon Dr. Alejandro Badia with Badia Hand to Shoulder Center and OrthoNOW in Miami.
“Use ‘syndrome.’ Don’t just say you have carpal tunnel. It’s carpal tunnel syndrome,” Badia said.
Once thought to be caused by repetitive activities such as data entry or assembly line work, carpal tunnel syndrome is more likely due to hormonal changes, underlying inflammatory diseases or simple wrist anatomy, Badia said.
“Repetitive wrist activities like typing on a computer keyboard or handling a cash register may further aggravate symptoms but are not linked to actual development of the syndrome,” he said. “The ‘myth’ that workplace responsibilities cause the problem has resulted in misdirection of billions of dollars into workers’ compensation to treat a condition that commonly occurs in the general population and is unrelated to on-the-job requirements.”
No studies show or support that constant use or repetitive trauma causes carpal tunnel syndrome, Badia said.
Tingling and numbness in the fingers and thumbs are classic symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, which can begin gradually and worsen over time, Badia said. Other symptoms include pain in the wrist or forearm or persistent burning. Over time decreased hand strength can make it difficult to form a fist or coordinate fingers and do simple manual tasks like buttoning a shirt or blouse, Badia said.
At its most basic, carpal tunnel syndrome can be described as a combination of factors that results in a pinched nerve. It occurs when the median nerve, extending from the forearm to the hand through the narrow tunnel of bone and ligaments on the wrist’s palm side, becomes pinched and inflamed from irritated tendons or other conditions that cause swelling in the wrist canal.
Women are three times more likely than men to develop carpal tunnel syndrome, perhaps because the carpal tunnel itself may be smaller in women than in men. Metabolic and hormonal-level changes during pregnancy and menopause also increase the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome. People with diabetes and other metabolic disorders are also more at risk.
Carpal tunnel syndrome cannot always be prevented, but it is possible to reduce the risk. Badia offers these tips:
• Be aware of hand position during sleep. If possible do not tuck hands under chin or by the heart while sleeping, which can cause fluid to pool in the wrist canal.
• Wearing a splint at night can help keep hand position neutral.
• Relax your grip when using tools, pens or other items.
• Be aware of posture while walking or sitting. Hunching places strain on arms, wrists and hands. Avoid bending the wrist too high or too low.
• Take breaks when doing any prolonged activities involving hands or wrists.
• Keep hands warm in a cold environment. Cold hands are a risk factor for developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
• Keep a low-salt diet, which will help reduce fluid retention.
• Anti-inflammatory medications and B vitamins can help with inflammation and pain and contribute to healing.
If symptoms persist, a physician may suggest a minor surgery that can be performed in an outpatient setting under local anesthesia. Most are now done with a minimally invasive endoscopic procedure, Badia said.