Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is a big and growing problem in today’s device-centric environment. This in turn has us typing and texting throughout the majority of our waking hours. But just what is carpal tunnel syndrome, and what can you do to prevent it? Sit back, relax, and scroll through this article using your ergonomic mouse. Here is everything you need to know about carpal tunnel syndrome.
What It Is
The carpal tunnel is the small space in your wrist through which your median nerve and several tendons pass between your hand and your forearm. The tendons, as you might have guessed, help control the movement of your hand and wrist, while the nerve carries your sensations. Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs any time something happens to make the carpal tunnel smaller. Swelling is a frequent culprit, though some people will be more prone to developing the syndrome in the first place if they are genetically predisposed to have smaller carpal tunnels.
While you can develop carpal tunnel syndrome in a number of ways — namely, through hypothyroidism, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes — it is often a form of Repetitive Strain Injury; that is, an injury that develops from making the same movement again and again. With injury comes swelling and scarring, both of which narrow the carpal tunnel and lead to the syndrome’s painful symptoms. If you do repetitive work, whether it’s typing on a keyboard all day, pulling espresso shots, cutting hair, or operating heavy machinery, you may be at risk.
How You’ll Know You Have It
In a narrow carpal tunnel, tissue presses on the median nerve and tendons, causing the following symptoms:
- Tingling, burning and itching in the fingers and hands.
- Weakness in the hands and lost mobility; weak grip.
- Waking up in the middle of a night needing to “shake your hands/wrists out” because they feel numb and tingly.
- Pain in the wrist.
- Inability to tell the difference between hot and cold by touch.
How to Treat It
The earlier you catch carpal tunnel syndrome, the sooner you can recover full function and comfort. Of course, you should start by looking for other more dangerous health problems, like diabetes and arthritis. From there, your doctor will recommend either a surgical or non-surgical approach.
1. Drugs. Sometimes, the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome can be significantly reduced with the help of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to bring the swelling down. Even aspirin and ibuprofen can help. Oral diuretics can also be effective, as can corticosteroids like prednisone or lidocaine, which can be injected directly into the wrist. However, none of these are long term solutions, and their effectiveness varies.
2. Surgery. There are two main surgical options available to you.
In open release surgery, your surgeon will make an incision (up to 2-inches) in your wrist and cut the carpal tunnel ligament. This creates more space in the tunnel, and can be done with only local anaesthesia with no hospital stay needed.
In endoscopic surgery, the surgeon will make two incisions in the wrist and palm of only about a half an inch. The surgeon then will insert an endoscope (a camera attached to a tube) and again cut the carpal tunnel ligament. Endoscopic surgery is much more precise than the open release surgery, so recovery time is often a little quicker, with less pain, scarring and scar tenderness.
In general, patients who receive this kind of surgery can return to much better functioning quite quickly thereafter, though normal functioning for both types of surgery may take months. Most patients must undergo physical therapy.
How to Prevent Carpal Tunnel
When carpal tunnel is caused by repetitive use, there are a number of ways to prevent it.
1. Take More Stretch Breaks. At least every 45 minutes or so, take the time to stand up and do the prayer stretch and a few wrist stretches. Doing so will help relieve tension in your muscles, increase blood flow to the right area, and get your muscles moving in new ways. You can also do wrist stretches right at your desk whenever you have a non-typing moment.
2. Invest in Ergonomic Products. While carpal tunnel can always arise from overuse, you’re at much greater risk when you’re using equipment that forces your body into awkward positions and that causes you to operate in less than ideal ways. When you type on a run-of-the-mill, flat keyboard, for instance, your hands turn outwards so they can reach the keys they need. This twists your wrists, putting pressure on those all important tendons and that median nerve, which can in turn cause the injury, swelling and scarring that can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. An adjustable ergonomic keyboard, on the other hand, splits in the middle, so that you can type in the position that feels most natural to you without wrenching your wrists too far in any one direction. The same goes for an ergonomic mouse, which will provide the support you need as you mouse throughout the day.
Carpal tunnel syndrome, is a painful and debilitating condition. It can greatly inhibit your ability to perform on the job and can sometimes even necessitate finding a new one. There are, however, excellent treatments out there, and even better ways to stop its development in its tracks. Happy typing!