Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common hand and wrist injury that is often caused by repetitive motion. Because symptoms tend to develop gradually, many people don’t recognize or treat the condition early on. But left untreated, carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms can become more extreme, disrupting your life and severely limiting day-to-day activities. That’s why understanding the symptoms and treating carpal tunnel syndrome is essential.
Cause of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
The median nerve, which runs from the forearm into the palm goes through a small space at the base of the palm known as the carpal tunnel. The nerve is surrounded by bone, tendons and ligament, and when this nerve is squeezed or compressed, it often results in tingling or numbness in the hand and fingers, followed by weakness, pain or other more severe symptoms.
This compression occurs most commonly in women, often due to smaller bone structure, and thus less room in the carpal tunnel, and – surprising to many patients – symptoms may become more prominent after a night of rest. This is due to the fact that many people unknowingly flex their wrists while they sleep, causing nerve compression. For others, repetitive motion is the first trigger, which can come from many common activities including typing or cutting, painting and gardening.
If you’ve recently started a new activity that requires a repetitive hand or wrist motion, be sure to take breaks to avoid overuse of your hand and wrist muscles.
How Long Can I Go Without Treating Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Without treatment, carpal tunnel syndrome can weaken your thumb and fingers, and reduce your strength and ability to grasp and grip. In severe cases, you may lose sensation for heat or cold or experience severe muscle deterioration at the base of the hand.
But being responsive to early symptoms can be key to prevention and the road to recovery. If you experience carpal tunnel symptoms, first take a break from repetitive activities, and begin an icing regimen for 10-15 minutes a couple of times per day. NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like ibuprofen or naproxen can also help to relieve pain and reduce swelling.
If, after taking these actions for a few weeks, you don’t feel an improvement, it’s a good time to schedule an appointment with an orthopedic physician who specializes in hand and wrist injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome.
Treatment of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
An early diagnosis will lead to faster pain relief and also minimize long-term damage. Choose an orthopedic specialist who focuses on hand and wrist treatments. They will determine the nature and severity of your injury and recommend an appropriate treatment regimen. Many doctors will recommend a conservative treatment approach first, which may include rest, a wrist brace, and ice (yes, more ice!).
Depending on your circumstances and response to these treatments, other options may be recommended, including injections or surgery if necessary. Your individual situation will drive your treatment recommendations, with the goal of minimizing or eliminating pressure on the median nerve to avoid long-term or even permanent nerve damage.
If surgery is needed to release pressure on the nerve, it’s typically an outpatient procedure and requires only a local anesthetic. Most patients can return to their normal activities in a matter of days after surgery.
If you are experiencing any of these carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms, don’t wait to be diagnosed and treated. Delays will only prolong your pain or limit your activities and could lead to serious long-term nerve damage.