Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen, University of Utah
For many, it’s a familiar situation. You come to work on time, pour your coffee, sit down at your computer, and begin typing. A few hours later, you take a lunch break and sit back down and start typing again, only to feel a slight pain in your hand. You decide to brush it off as a “one-time thing” and nothing of concern.
Over the next week, you start experiencing this pain more intensely and frequently. Eventually, you decide to see your doctor about it. In the meantime, friends and relatives have been peppering you with stories about their own aches and pains. There is your quilt-knitting grandma, who feels a twinge of pain when she takes up her knitting needles and starts to work on a tiny hat for the latest grandchild. Or your bartender friend who flips tricks with the tools of his trade and feels an ache in his wrist every time he tosses that alcohol-filled shaker to impress the crowds. Even your younger cousin mentions she aches now and again.
Once you visit the doctor, you discover that the pain you are experiencing has a name. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a very real pain that people of all ages experience after repeating a certain motion many times.
When most people hear the word tunnel, they think of the long, covered road that allows them to get from point A to point B. The carpal tunnel, however, is a narrow passageway of bones and ligaments at the base of the hand. This passageway contains the median nerve and tendons that bend the finger, allowing the neural signals to get from your shoulder to your fingers. This is the nerve you need to function when picking up that heavy bowling ball and getting ready for your swing, or even when gently tossing a baseball to your toddler. You begin to experience symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome (such as tingling or numbness) when something causes that median nerve to be compressed. Remember that time you used your hand to prop up your head while you took a nap and woke up to a tingling sensation all over? It’s very similar to carpal tunnel syndrome.
Young and old alike are susceptible to getting carpal tunnel syndrome, although women have been found to be more susceptible than men. As the carpal tunnel is a narrow passageway, anything that puts pressure on it can make you more likely to get it. Being overweight adds that extra padding, and as most women put on some weight while pregnant, this heightens their chances of developing it. Additionally, the act of repeatedly lifting up your child or even feeding them a bottle puts an unlikely strain on your wrist, as does pumping milk. Thyroid disease can also cause carpal tunnel, and according to the Cleveland Clinic, women are between 5-8 times more likely to have thyroid disease than men.
So, with technology becoming ever entrenched in our society and chatting online and via our phones becomes the new normal mode of communication, what’s a person to do to protect themselves from carpal tunnel syndrome?
If you prefer to treat it naturally, quick fixes like improving your posture and relaxing your grip go a long way to reducing pressure on the nerve. Taking frequent breaks will help keep whatever motion you’re in the middle of from becoming too repetitive.
However, some people work a job with repetitive motions where natural fixes aren’t going to cut it. In those cases, a doctor may suggest certain medications, splinting the wrist, or even steroid injections.
Finally, if none of the above options help your case, your doctor may feel the need to resort to surgery. Carpal tunnel release, as it’s called, is one of the most common surgeries in the United States. It’s performed under local or regional anesthesia and does not require an overnight hospital stay. Open release and endoscopic surgery both accomplish the same thing: a ligament is severed to reduce the pressure on the median nerve. Endoscopic surgery may allow for faster recovery but may carry a higher chance of complications.
Whichever way you choose to treat carpal tunnel syndrome, you don’t want to ignore it for too long. Untreated, it can lead to permanent nerve damage–and you could suddenly find yourself yearning to go bowling, write a blog post, or do a simple task that you’d always taken for granted.