Being able to use our hands to perform delicate, precise tasks – such as cutting vegetables, typing on a keyboard, using a TV remote control, driving a car, or talking on the phone – is an important part of what makes us human. We use our hands every day for a wide variety of purposes. For people suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, a condition that causes numbness and pain in the hands and wrists, quality of life can suffer because it makes it much more difficult to maintain their independence.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is an irritation of the median nerve, which runs from the forearm into the hand. This nerve leads into the palm side of the thumb, index, and middle finger, as well as part of the ring finger, and travels through a narrow opening at the base of the hand known as the carpal tunnel. Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when ligaments and tendons in this opening become swollen or inflamed and press against the nerve.
While carpal tunnel syndrome can affect anybody, seniors are more likely to have problems with it, with women being three times more likely to get it than men. Also, many aging adults already suffer from rheumatoid arthritis or diabetes, which makes them even more susceptible.
Symptoms to look for
It can be difficult to recognize the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome because they often start out gradually and get worse over time. Because many people sleep with their wrists flexed, compressing the median nerve, symptoms frequently appear at night. The most common symptom is pain in the palm of the hand, wrist, or forearm, as well as tingling, a burning sensation, or numbness.
People often report that they wake up needing to shake their hand around to get relief. Other symptoms may include body aches, fatigue, and loss of appetite, as well as weakness in the hands and difficulty gripping items.
If you’re an older adult and you are experiencing weakness in your hands or trouble gripping items, it’s a good idea to see your physician and let them know. Diagnosing carpal tunnel syndrome is usually done with a physical examination. Your doctor may ask you to place your wrist in a fully bent position for a minute and monitor the pain, tingling, or numbness in your fingers. He or she may also tap over the median nerve to evaluate your response. In some cases, electromyography or ultrasound tests may be used as well.
The first treatment your doctor will usually recommend is rest with periods of immobilization using a splint, especially while sleeping. You may also find that over-the-counter pain relievers help with the pain and discomfort.
If your symptoms last six months or longer, a surgical procedure known as “carpal tunnel release” is frequently recommended. This is one of the most common procedures performed in the U.S. and the majority of patients recover completely. During this procedure, the surgeon reduces pressure on the median nerve by cutting a band of tissue around the wrist. It is typically done on an outpatient basis under local anesthesia. Physical or occupational therapy is usually prescribed during recovery to restore strength in the wrist.
Carpal tunnel syndrome vs. rheumatoid arthritis
People often get confused about the differences between carpal tunnel syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis, which is an autoimmune disease during which your immune system attacks healthy joints. One distinction is that, while carpal tunnel syndrome does not affect the pinky, rheumatoid arthritis will cause problems in every finger. Also, if you experience numbness and tingling, that’s a symptom of carpal tunnel syndrome, while swelling is exclusive to rheumatoid arthritis.
The good news is that there are treatment options that can ease the pain and discomfort of carpal tunnel syndrome and allow you to continue doing most of the activities you are accustomed to. So be sure to talk to your physician and describe the symptoms you are experiencing as soon as you notice them.