Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common condition that causes pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness in the hand and wrist. It happens when there is increased pressure within the wrist on a nerve called the median nerve.

Causes of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused when the space (the carpal tunnel) in the wrist narrows. This presses down on the median nerve and tendons (located inside the carpal tunnel), makes them swell, which cuts off sensation in the fingers and hand.

Symptoms of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Common daytime symptoms can include:

  • Tingling in the fingers.

  • Decreased feeling in the fingertips.

  • Difficulty using the hand for small tasks, like:

  • Handling small objects.

  • Grasping a steering wheel to drive.

  • Holding a book to read.

  • Writing.

  • Using a computer keyboard.

As carpal tunnel syndrome worsens, symptoms become more constant. These symptoms can include:

  • Weakness in the hand.

  • Inability to perform tasks that require delicate motions (such as buttoning a shirt).

  • Dropping objects.

Diagnosis of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Tinel’s sign

In this test, the physician taps over the median nerve at the wrist to see if it produces a tingling sensation in the fingers.

Wrist flexion test (or Phalen test)

In this test, the patient rests his or her elbows on a table and allows the wrist to fall forward freely. Individuals with carpal tunnel syndrome will experience numbness and tingling in the fingers within 60 seconds. The more quickly symptoms appear, the more severe the carpal tunnel syndrome.


X-rays of the wrist may be ordered if there is limited wrist motion, or evidence of arthritis or trauma.

Electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies

These studies determine how well the median nerve itself is working and how well it controls muscle movement.

Treatment of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Non-surgical treatments

Non-surgical treatments are usually tried first. Treatment begins by:

  • Wearing a wrist splint at night.

  • Taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen.

  • Cortisone injections.

Other treatments focus on ways to change your environment to decrease symptoms. This is often seen in the workplace, where you can make modifications to help with carpal tunnel. These changes might include:

  • Raising or lowering your chair.

  • Moving your computer keyboard.

  • Changing your hand/wrist position while doing activities.

  • Using recommended splints, exercises and heat treatments from a hand therapist.

Surgical treatments

  • Surgery is recommended when carpal tunnel syndrome does not respond to non-surgical treatments or has already become severe.

  • The goal of surgery is to increase the size of the tunnel in order to decrease the pressure on the nerves and tendons that pass through the space.

  • This is done by cutting (releasing) the ligament that covers the carpal tunnel at the base of the palm.

  • This ligament is called the transverse carpal ligament.

If you have surgery, you can expect to:

  • Have an outpatient procedure where you will be awake, but have local anesthesia (pain numbing medication).

  • In some cases, your doctor may offer an IV (directly into the vein) anesthetic.

  • This option allows you to take a brief nap and wake up after the procedure is finished.

  • This is not a general anesthetic, like what is used in surgery.

  • Instead, your healthcare team will monitor you during the procedure (called monitored anesthetic care, or MAC).

  • This is also used for procedures like a colonoscopy.

  • Be in brief discomfort for about 24 to 72 hours after surgery.

  • People usually experience complete nighttime symptom relief quickly—even the night after surgery.

  • Have your stitches removed 10 to 14 days after surgery.

  • Hand and wrist use for everyday activities is gradually restored by using specific exercise programs.

  • Be unable to do heavier activities with the affected hand for about four to six weeks.

  • Recovery times can vary depending on your age, general health, severity of carpal tunnel syndrome and how long you had symptoms.

  • You will continue to gain strength and sensation in the following year after surgery.

  • Have relief from most carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms.

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