Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition typically associated with long hours spent typing away at a computer. But anyone who performs repetitive hand and arm movements for prolonged periods of time is at risk. In fact, carpal tunnel syndrome is the most common form of nerve compression, affecting nearly 6% of the adult population in the United States. Pain caused by compression or pressure on the structures of the wrist is more than a nuisance. Without treatment, someone with carpal tunnel syndrome may need surgery or be faced with permanent damage.
Creating a carpal tunnel syndrome prevention strategy with self-care and lifestyle changes is often possible. Physical or occupational therapy is also highly effective in combating hand and wrist discomfort, numbness, and weakness associated with carpal tunnel syndrome.
The median nerve provides movement in the forearm, hand, and wrist and sends pain, touch, and temperature messages from the hand and arm back to the brain.
It runs from the arm down to the palm of the hand and passes through a structure called the carpal tunnel. If this tunnel becomes injured or inflamed, it can thicken or swell, which causes compression or squeezing of the median nerve inside it.
Several factors are associated with a higher risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, including injuries that reduce space within the carpal tunnel and medical conditions that cause inflammation or nerve-damage.
Any motion that places prolonged stress and strain on the hand and wrist also increases the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms. Carpal tunnel symptoms are also linked to certain hormonal changes, fluid retention, and obesity.
While wrist and hand pain should always be addressed and treated, it’s not usually indicative of carpal tunnel syndrome.
Numbness and/or tingling in the thumb and/or index, middle and ring fingers that tends to travel from the wrist up to the arm are more frequently associated with carpal tunnel compression. It’s also common to experience difficulty holding, grabbing, or pinching objects with carpal tunnel syndrome. Symptoms usually come on gradually and worsen over time.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is typically diagnosed with a physical exam, tests to asses hand and wrist strength and sensation, and an electromyography test to evaluate function in the median nerve. If you currently have symptoms—or want to take proactive steps to prevent them—try these tips:
Cold hands are more susceptible to pain and stiffness. If you can’t control the temperature in your space, use fingerless gloves to keep your hands warm while you go about your daily tasks.
Stretching is an easy and effective way to improve flexibility and release tightness. Simple hand and wrist stretches don’t require any equipment and can be done at your desk, in bed, or when you’re sitting on the couch watching your favorite show. You shouldn’t notice any pain when stretching. In fact, you may find your hands and wrists feel noticeably more relaxed and flexible.
If your job, hobby, or household chore requires a lot of bending at the wrist or involves the use of vibrating tools and machinery, allow plenty of time to take breaks. If possible, alternate those tasks with others that don’t overstress the structures of the hand and wrist.
Think about the movements that are a part of an average day for you. Do you spend a lot of time typing on a keyboard, hammering nails, or blow-drying your clients’ hair? Try a softer touch when holding these objects and keep your hands and wrist relaxed and loose to reduce the force on your median nerve.
Whether you’re sitting or standing, the way you hold yourself can affect every part of the body—including your wrist and hands. Poor posture causes the shoulders to roll inward, shortening the neck and shoulder muscles and compressing the nerves in the neck and down into the arms and hands.
If you work at a desk, adjust your keyboard, desk, and chair so your forearms remain level with the work surface. For computer work, this involves positioning the keyboard and mouse at the level of the belly button.
The goal is to keep your arms and hands relaxed in a middle position and avoid bending your wrists too far up or down. This hand and wrist position eases pressure on the median nerve.
The motion of holding, clicking, and sliding a computer mouse bends the wrist unnaturally. Over time, these motions can lead to carpal tunnel compression. Swap your traditional mouse for a vertical, ergonomic mouse to improve your wrist position. Guide the movement of the mouse using the arm without resting the wrist on the work surface.
Wrist splints, sleeves, and braces are available to stabilize the wrist in a neutral position and reduce pressure on the median nerve. You can wear one while you work, while you sleep, or whenever you perform tasks that can irritate or compress the carpal tunnel.
Several common health conditions cause or aggravate carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms. Diabetes, arthritis, hypothyroidism, and obesity are just a few. It is important to practice good health habits and manage any underlying conditions that make you more susceptible to nerve damage.
If your pain and stiffness continue even after trying these carpal tunnel syndrome prevention tips, you should consider a self-referral to a physical or occupational therapist. You can also ask your healthcare provider to refer you to a clinic in your area.
A carpal tunnel treatment plan incorporates various hands-on modalities for symptom relief, along with stretches and exercises to improve musculoskeletal function. Your physical therapist teaches you new ways to perform everyday tasks to prevent symptoms from recurring and recommend lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of conditions that cause nerve damage.
For some patients, carpal tunnel compression cannot be resolved with home-care and physical therapy. Carpal tunnel syndrome release surgery cuts the ligament pressing on the carpal tunnel, giving the median nerve and tendons more space to pass through. Physical or occupational therapy is beneficial after surgery to rebuild strength and restore range of motion safely and gradually.
Don’t put off a visit to your healthcare provider and physical therapist to tackle your carpal tunnel symptoms. Treatment is available—and it works. Find a physical or occupational therapy clinic near you.