Women's Health

Carpal tunnel syndrome: What you need to know

Destination Health: Certain people are more at risk than others for developing this debilitating condition. Dr. Cynara Coomer shares what can be done to alleviate the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome


Carpal tunnel syndrome is a painful condition caused by a pinched nerve in your wrist. 

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), women are three times more susceptible to carpal tunnel than men, most likely because of the relatively small size of female wrists. Individuals who work in assembly lines are also at greater risk for developing carpal tunnel. While carpal tunnel can be treated, early intervention is key to preventing permanent nerve damage and chronic pain.

Your carpal tunnel is a small passageway that runs through your wrist and houses an important nerve known as the median nerve, which is responsible for transmitting sensory perceptions from the palm and fingers to the brain. While vehicular tunnel walls are made of cement, your carpal tunnel consists of tightly bound bones and ligaments. Swelling may cause the tunnel walls to constrict and press on your median nerve. The compressed median nerve may become irritated, resulting in painful sensations felt in your hand, wrist or arm.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a progressive condition, which means the symptoms usually present gradually and worsen over time. The first symptoms include minor annoyances such as burning, tingling or itchy numbness in your hand. These initial signs typically appear at night. As the condition progresses, symptoms generally develop to include grip weakness and radiating pain. Over time, you may find it more difficult to make a fist or manipulate hand-held objects. Because carpal tunnel is a progressive disease, immediate medical intervention is necessary to prevent the symptoms from getting worse. Severe, untreated cases may lead to deterioration of some hand muscles.

A number of conditions could lead to the compression of your median nerve. People born with smaller carpal tunnels are at greater risk for the disorder. While a single cause is usually difficult to pinpoint, possible factors include wrist injury, fluid retention and the development of a cyst or tumor, according to the NIH.  Carpal tunnel syndrome may occur alongside an underlying health condition such as thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis or diabetes.

Treatment may involve a combination of surgical and non-surgical measures. Non-surgical approaches are typically geared toward mitigating painful symptoms. Anti-inflammatory drugs and pain relievers may help ease physical discomfort. Diuretics and corticosteroids can help relieve the pressure surrounding your median nerve. Exercises like wrist stretches or yoga may also help relieve the pain and strengthen the muscles to prevent further irritation. Over time, the pain can resolve itself, but ongoing pain may require surgery.

Surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome accounts for a large number of surgical procedures in the nation. If the symptoms last for more than few months, doctors may recommend a carpal tunnel release. The traditional surgical method for treating carpal tunnel is known as an open release surgery. During this procedure, the surgeon widens the carpal tunnel with an incision to the carpal ligament. The enlarged carpal tunnel allows more room for your median nerve, hopefully putting a permanent end to carpal tunnel syndrome.