What do each of these have in common? They’re all symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome.
Unlike a multitude of other ailments in life, the symptoms associated with carpal tunnel syndrome tend to occur gradually – so gradually, in fact, that it’s easy for many people to not recognize the progression until symptoms become constant and severe. Often times, the symptoms may only be noticed after sleeping (because people tend to sleep with their wrists flexed) and, upon waking, feeling like you need to “shake your hands out”. While it’s true that these symptoms can be the product of a different condition, it should be noted that carpal tunnel syndrome is the most common of entrapment neuropathies. However, as symptoms get worse, tingling and weakness during the day is often experienced, as well as feeling like fingers are swollen (even when no swelling is apparent) and grip strength may suffer.
So, what, exactly, is carpal tunnel syndrome?
Well, it’s the result of the median nerve – which runs from the forearm to the palm of the hand – becoming compressed at the wrist. This can happen because, to get from the forearm to the hand, the nerve must pass through the “carpal tunnel”, which is a narrow passageway comprised of both bone and ligaments and is located at the base of the hand. For a variety of reasons, the tunnel can narrow and compress the nerve…leading to weakness, pain, and numbness that can affect the entire arm (as opposed to just the hand and wrist).
Carpal tunnel syndrome isn’t typically caused by a problem with the median nerve itself but, instead, tends to be the result of a combination of factors – factors that wind up increasing the amount of pressure that is exerted on the nerve. For some individuals, the carpal tunnel is simply smaller than it is in other individuals; for instance, women tend to have a smaller carpal tunnel than men. Also, any type of trauma that occurs to the wrist (such as a break or sprain) can cause swelling that places undue pressure on the nerve.
Other contributing factors include chronic illnesses that include rheumatoid arthritis (which causes inflammation), diabetes (which causes nerve damage), menopause, thyroid disorders, and kidney failure. Spending a lot of time working with vibrating tools or doing anything that required prolonged and repetitive flexing of the wrist(s) can put pressure on the nerve and/or worsen damage that’s already occurred.
One of the most frustrating parts about carpal tunnel syndrome is that, many times, there is no identifiable cause. However, that doesn’t mean that there’s no treatment. In fact, both surgical and nonsurgical treatment options exist and, following a diagnosis, those will be things that your orthopaedic surgeon will discuss with you.