You've had a tingling feeling in your thumb for a few days, and it's started to spread to your other fingers. There has also been a hint of pain in your wrists that isn't getting better, even with pain relievers. And every time you type, each press of a key makes the pain worse.
Now you're wondering — what on Earth is this?
There are many possible causes, from broken bones to nerve damage, but one of the most common causes is carpal tunnel syndrome. It's difficult to pinpoint how many people have carpal tunnel syndrome, but it's estimated that between 3 and 6% of adults in the United States will be diagnosed with it at some point.
What Exactly Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Look at your palm for a second. Right down the center is the median nerve. This nerve allows you to have feeling and movement in the thumb, index finger, middle finger, thumb side of your ring finger, and the palm. The carpal tunnel is a passage in the wrist where the median nerve enters the hand.
This tunnel is always narrow, so any swelling inside of it makes it even narrower. And if the swelling ends up pinching the median nerve, it's called carpal tunnel syndrome.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is well known for causing numbness, tingling, pain, and weakness in the fingers, hands, and wrists. However, when it comes to symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, there's a bit more to the story.
"Each and every patient is unique in the way their body experiences carpal tunnel syndrome – there will be subtle differences in the fingers affected, the time of day or night, even the character of the symptoms. Many other medical issues can cause similar or overlapping symptoms. The only way to know for sure is to check with your physician," says Stephen Liu, MD, Orthopaedic Hand and Wrist Surgeon at Chester County Hospital.
9 Surprising Signs of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
1. You've woken up in the middle of the night with a sore hand. Many people sleep with their wrists flexed, which is a position known to bring out the tingling, itching, or burning sensations. You might also wake up feeling like you need to shake out your hand.
2. You've been dropping everything. Carpal tunnel syndrome can affect sensation in your digits, making it feel like you can't hold onto things anymore. It's common when holding bags, so if your groceries end up on the floor, it may be carpal tunnel.
3. You're having problems buttoning your pants and tying your shoes. This doesn't mean that your brain has suddenly forgotten how to do simple tasks. Difficulty with fine motor skills can occur as carpal tunnel syndrome progresses.
4. Your elbow is hurting. Typically, the thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers are especially likely to be affected by carpal tunnel syndrome. However, the pain can actually shoot up to your elbow — and possibly even all the way up to the shoulders and neck.
5. Your fingers feel swollen — but they're not. It might not look like it from the outside, but you may feel as though your fingers have puffed up. You're not imagining things — that's actually very normal when you have carpal tunnel syndrome.
6. It has become painful to send a text message. When carpal tunnel syndrome acts up, it often does so when you're holding something for an extended period of time with your wrist bent. This can make simple tasks like texting, driving, or even reading a book, painful.
7. It is also hard to type on a computer. There isn't evidence that typing causes carpal tunnel, but that doesn't mean they're not related. Too much typing can cause tendinitis in your wrist — these tendons surround your median nerve and when swollen can cause the nerve to be compressed.
8. Your hands are really cold. Raynaud's disease is a condition where blood vessels narrow when exposed to cold, making your hands and fingers cold. The blood vessels in the carpal tunnel can also narrow, making you more susceptible to symptoms of Raynaud's.
9. Your symptoms seem to have come out of nowhere. Carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms generally start gradually, and not from a specific injury. Symptoms might come and go at first, but as the condition worsens, symptoms may occur more often, last longer, and can even become constant.
If you suspect carpal tunnel syndrome, don't hesitate to talk to your physician.
"Carpal tunnel syndrome is generally progressive, meaning it gets worse over time. If treatment isn't sought in a timely manner, carpal tunnel syndrome can result in permanent damage your nerves, ultimately leading to irreversible numbness, tingling, or weakness," adds Dr. Liu.
But if you are diagnosed and treated early, you may be able to slow down — or even completely stop — the progression of the disease.
Many symptoms can improve with non-surgical treatments, such as pain medication, injections, or wearing a splint at night. In some cases, your physician may recommend surgery to relieve pressure on the median nerve. And while they can't cure carpal tunnel syndrome, yoga, acupuncture, or chiropractic care might be able to help relieve some of the symptoms.
If you are experiencing symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, call 610-738-2300 to find a Chester County Hospital orthopaedic provider near you.