Carpal tunnel syndrome is a painful condition affecting the hands that about 4 percent of the general population suffers with. It’s one of the most common neuropathies (nerve-related disorders) that adults deal with, and is now increasingly common among teenagers and young adults, too.
What are some signs that you might have carpal tunnel syndrome? Symptoms of carpal tunnel include numbness or tingling in the fingers and hands, difficulty gripping objects and trouble using your hands when doing things like writing or typing due to pain and weakness.
You can help prevent symptoms, or find carpal tunnel relief if you have already have them, by fixing your posture, resting the affected hand, and exercising or stretching the affected wrists and hands.
What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition affecting the wrists or hands that causes symptoms in the thumb, middle finger and index finger most often. For some people, pain and numbness can also extend up the hand and palm into the wrist and forearm. It’s common for carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms to get worse when you’re bending the hands and wrist a lot, or putting pressure on them.
You might notice the worst symptoms when attempting to grip heavy objects, when carrying items, using the hands at work for many hours (such as when writing, holding up a phone or typing), driving, or doing any hobbies that involve use of the hands.
Symptoms usually come on gradually and get more severe and frequent with time as inflammation worsens. This is especially true if you continue performing repetitive movements with the affected hand (for example, if someone is typing on the computer a lot at work). Moving, stretching and shaking your hand might help make the pain go away temporarily. But, it’s likely to return until you rest the hand and treat the underlying issue.
Even if symptoms are not severe or strong in the beginning, it’s important to treat carpal tunnel syndrome before they become worse. In some cases, permanent nerve or muscle damage can develop in the wrists or hands if left untreated for long periods of time.
Common Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Symptoms
Signs and symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome typically include: (1)
- Numbness, loss of feeling and tingling in the hand, especially in the index finger and thumb
- Pain and throbbing in the fingers, hand or forearm
- Difficulty moving the hand normally, especially when using the thumb, index, middle and ring fingers
- Unusual sensations throughout the hand and fingers, some of which might feel like shocks or sharp pains
- Pain that extends up the forearm toward the shoulder
- Muscle weakness and shaking in the hand
- Weakened grip and loss of strength in the hand
- Trouble performing movements that require steadiness of the fingers/hands, such as writing or drawing
- Throbbing and swelling, including at night or when waking up
- Sometimes a loss of awareness of where your hand is in space (loss of proprioception)
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Diagnosis and Tests:
If the symptoms above describe the types of pains and sensations you’re dealing with, your doctor can perform certain tests in order to diagnose you with carpal tunnel syndrome. You might be asked to grip objects, move around the painful hand or perform other tasks while your doctor checks for signs of inflammation. Tests and diagnoses can include:
- Identifying points of numbness and pain — If your symptoms affect most of your fingers, except for the pinky finger, this is a good indication that you have carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Electric impulse tests — Your doctor can use a device that omits electric impulses along the median nerve in the carpal tunnel to determine if the nerve is being compressed. This is also a nerve conduction test, which is considered the “gold standard” for diagnosing carpal tunnel syndrome. (2)
- Tapping on the palm — If your doctor taps on the palm of your affected hand and you feel pain, this is another indication of inflammation and swelling.
- Feeling the thumb — Some people lose muscle in their thumb due to carpal tunnel syndrome, which your doctor can look for by feeling your thumb.
Risk Factors and Causes of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
What causes carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms? Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by swelling and inflammation of the carpal bones and tendons located in the wrist. There are eight small carpal bones that come together in the wrist forming a “tunnel” structure that extends down the hand. Tendons overlay the bones and help control movements of the hands, along with ligaments and nerves. (3)
When tissues within the tunnel become inflamed, due to factors like overuse or pressure, the median nerve becomes compressed. This changes how sensations are perceived in the hands and interferes with movement, strength and coordination. It’s common for both hands/wrists to be affected by carpal tunnel syndrome at the same time, however some people only develop symptoms in one hand or wrist (usually on their dominant side).
A number of factors can predispose you to developing carpal tunnel syndrome. These include risk factors such as: (4)
- Performing repetitive movements with the hands or the lower arms. Over time, this strains the tissues and tendons in the wrists and hands. One of the biggest risk factors is regularly performing movements that involve extreme flexion or extension of the hand and wrist (bending the wrist backward and forward over and over). People who work on the computer for many hours per day at risk, as well as carpenters, butchers or chefs, musicians, mechanics, landscapers, athletes and those who do lots of rowing, golfing, cycling or playing tennis.
- Having any existing condition that affect the nerves and joints. These include diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis or an autoimmune disorder such as lupus.
- Having poor posture, including tensing or hunching in the shoulders, and tilting the head/neck forward.
- Suffering from an injury that affects the wrists or hands, or having had surgery on the carpal tunnel region in the past.
- Obesity or being very overweight.
- Smoking, which increases inflammation.
- Genetics/heredity. If someone in your family has had carpal tunnel, nerve damage, degenerative joint disease, arthritis or similar conditions, you might have a higher chance of having the same problem. Some people inherit abnormalities in the shape of their wrists or hands that make them more susceptible to swelling and pain.
- Being a woman, especially who is middle age. Adult women tend to experience carpal tunnel syndrome more than any other age group.
- Hormonal changes, including pregnancy and menopause. Hormonal changes, such as shifts in estrogen levels due to menopause, tend to worsen swelling.
Conventional Treatments for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
After you’ve been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, your doctor will likely recommend that you immediately take a break from doing anything that puts added pressure on the hands. Resting the hands and wrists gives them time to heal while swelling reduces. You might need to avoid certain tasks at work, or find modifications if they are making symptoms worse.
There are several ways to lower pain in your hands and wrists while you heal. These include: (5)
- Wearing a wrist band — Wearing a wrist band or splint around your wrist can keep the affected area stabile. This can especially be helpful at night, since your not using your hands much anyway but may accidentally roll over on them or apply pressure. Wrist hands stop the wrist from flexing or moving back and forth, which keeps the median nerve from being compressed.
- Injections — If pain becomes very bad, or the hand is very swollen, your doctor might recommend taking an over-the-counter pain-killer, such as Tylenol, Advil or another non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). When these options don’t work well enough, you might receive a corticosteroid injections to reduce swelling and relieve pressure on the median nerve.
- As a last resort option, surgery — When all other treatments fail to work, surgery might be recommended in order to restore normal movements of the hands. Surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome works by creating more room for the median nerve via use of an endoscope, taking off pressure and reducing pinching in the wrist. Sometimes even after surgery some symptoms still persist, especially numbness or reduced range of motion of the wrist.
5 Ways to Prevent Carpal Tunnel
1. Stretch Your Wrist & Hands
Take breaks from activities throughout your day to stretch your hand, such as when you’re at work. You might need to do this very often if you already have some carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms, such as every 1–2 minutes. Gently bend your fingers and move around your wrists. If possible change the types of activities you’re doing throughout the day to take pressure off of the hands, giving them a break. For a long term solution, ask your employer about modifying the equipment you use, tasks you perform or your schedule if this is causing you physical pain.
2. Don’t Grip Too Hard
When driving, writing, playing video games or doing other activities that require using the hands, try not to squeeze too tightly. Keep a looser grip to reduce pressure and make an effort to perform tasks in ways that put less stress on the affected areas. It also helps to keep your hands warm and relaxed, such as if you work outside for many hours in the cold, in order to prevent stiffness.
3. Use Better Equipment & Bigger Tools
Swap small tools and pens or pencils for bigger objects that require a looser grip. If you’re working on the computer, consider using a wrist rest for your hands and also be sure to hold the mouse lightly. You may want to consider buying a keyboard and mouse that are purposefully designed to help keep the hands relaxed. One example is a Continuous Passive Motion (CPM) keyboard that lifts and decline in height automatically every three minutes to help adjust the position of the hands.
4. Practice Good Posture
When using your hands for long periods, try following the tips below to help ensure you have the best posture possible:
- Keep your feet firmly set on the floor or on a footrest.
- Sit with your spine straight, such as sitting against an upright chair without hunching. Keep your shoulders and neck relaxed, not letting your neck bend forward too much (this way avoiding “forward head posture“).
- Keep a computer screen or other equipment at eye level if possible, this way your chin stays level to the ground.
- Let your elbows rest at the side of your body and your wrists remain in a straight, relaxed position as much as possible.
5. Anti-Inflammatory Diet & Supplements
Your diet can either promote inflammation and worsen symptoms associated with joint or tendon pain, or help your body to heal more easily.
- To help prevent symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, eat a diet high in anti-inflammatory foods like: whole fruits and vegetables (especially those high in potassium and magnesium to flush out excess sodium), walnuts, flax and chia seeds, foods high in B vitamins like green leafy vegetables, beans or wild meats, green smoothies, fresh juices or powdered greens drinks, sea vegetables, and healthy fats like wild fish, cage-free eggs or grass-fed beef.
- Avoid having too much added sugar, too much salt/sodium, foods high in trans-fats or saturated fats, alcohol, processed grains, or any food that causes allergies or isn’t well-tolerated.
4 Natural Treatments for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Symptoms
Other than taking medications to reduce pain, or opting for surgery, here are several ways to manage your carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms:
1. Rest the Affected Hand
Try to avoid stressing the painful area or over-using the hands for at least 2–3 weeks. During the resting period you can focus on stretching and treating your hands using the practices below.
2. Perform Wrist & Hand Exercises
Moving the hands in different planes of motions, as well as doing exercises like yoga, has been shown to help relieve carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms. (6) You can try to lift light objects, using your whole hand a loose grip. This can help strengthen the hand until the condition self-corrects.
If your symptoms become very bad, it’s a good idea to meet with a chiropractor for adjustments or a occupational therapist to get a professional opinion about which types of exercises will be most helpful. Below are some specific exercises you can perform to stretch the susceptible hands and wrist: (7)
- Extend and stretch both wrists and fingers as you count to five. Straighten both wrists and relax your fingers, then make a fist with both hands. Count to five as you hold, then straighten again. Repeat this series several times in a row, about 2–3 times per day.
- Hold your hands in “prayer pose” with your palms touching, and rotate the hand up and down.
- Roll the wrists gently in circles.
- Stretch the spaces between the fingers lightly.
3. Apply Ice to Reduce Pain
Applying ice and stretching your hands can both help relieve painful symptoms. Use an ice pack held in your hand, or over your hand, for about 15 minutes, twice daily.
4. Use Essential Oils
Essential oils can be applied to the painful area to promote healing, decrease swelling, reduce inflammation and dull pain. The best essential oils for treating carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms include: wintergreen oil, cypress oil, helichrysum oil, peppermint oil and frankincense oil. Use a mixture of oils by adding about 3–4 drops mixed with a bit of coconut oil. Rub it on the inflamed area 1–3 times daily for the most relief.
Precautions When Treating Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Symptoms
Try to treat your carpal tunnel symptoms sooner rather than later, due to how they tend to worsen with time. Visit an orthopedist, chiropractor or your primary doctor if you notice symptoms like numbness in one or both hands, a very weak grip, tingling and other signs of carpal tunnel.
Final Thoughts on Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
- Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition that affects the wrists and hands, causing inflammation in the small opening just below the base of the wrist. Pain and numbness occur due to compression of the median nerve leading to the hand.
- Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome typically include: pain in the wrist/hand/fingers, throbbing, tingling, weakness, shock sensations and limited range of motion.
- Natural ways to find carpal tunnel relief include: fixing your posture, resting the affected hand, receiving chiropractic adjustments, exercising and stretching the wrist/hand, and taking supplements to help reduce inflammation.