Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Overview

This common condition is caused by pressure on the nerve that runs through the wrist, causing pain and weakness in the hand and wrist.

Carpal tunnel syndromeCarpal tunnel syndrome is a painful, progressive condition that can cause tingling and numbness in your hand and wrist. It can also cause a sharp, piercing pain that shoots through your wrist and up your arm.

The condition is caused by pressure on a nerve called the median nerve that runs from the forearm into the palm. The nerve runs through a small space in the wrist called the carpal tunnel.

The median nerve controls movement and feeling in the thumb and first three fingers (but not the little finger). Pressure on the median nerve can come from swelling, or anything that causes the carpal tunnel to become smaller. Some people are born with an increased risk because their carpal tunnels are smaller. This trait runs in families.

There are many risk factors for carpal tunnel syndrome, including:

  • Injury to the wrist that causes swelling. Bone dislocations and fractures can narrow the carpal tunnel and put pressure on the median nerve.
  • Assembly line work, such as manufacturing, sewing, cleaning, or meat, poultry or fish packing
  • Mechanical problems in the wrist joint
  • Repeated use of vibrating hand tools
  • Diabetes, which makes the nerves more susceptible to compression
  • Autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. In an autoimmune disease, the body’s immune system abnormally attacks its own tissue. This causes widespread inflammation, which can affect the carpal tunnel.
  • Development of a cyst or tumor in the carpal tunnel

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 10 types of employment with the highest total number of carpal-tunnel-related events are:

  1. Cooks, institution and cafeteria
  2. Electrical power-line installers and repairers
  3. Painters, construction and maintenance
  4. Highway maintenance workers
  5. Welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers
  6. Bus and truck mechanics and diesel engine specialists
  7. Construction laborers
  8. Maids and housekeeping cleaners / Industrial machinery mechanics
  9. Laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, hand
  10. Automotive service technicians and mechanics

While many people associate carpal tunnel syndrome with computer use, the risk is much lower in computer users than in people whose work involves heavy labor.

In most cases of carpal tunnel syndrome, there is no single cause. Carpal tunnel syndrome is more likely in women than in men. This may be due to the smaller size of a woman’s carpal tunnel. Hormonal changes may also play a role. The condition usually develops in a person’s dominant hand.

In pregnant women, carpal tunnel syndrome may occur in both wrists. The syndrome usually goes away on its own after delivery, but symptoms can continue for 6 months or more.

In some people, carpal tunnel syndrome is a minor inconvenience, while in others, it becomes disabling. If a person’s carpal tunnel symptoms are mild and don’t last long, the condition often improves on its own. If a case is severe and untreated, the muscles at the base of the thumb may whither, and a person may permanently lose sensation.

Carpal tunnel treatment generally begins with a conservative approach, including rest, corticosteroid injections and splinting. Surgery may be recommended for people whose carpal tunnel syndrome does not improve with more conservative treatment.

Updated on: 11/18/15
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Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Symptoms and Diagnosis