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Beneficiary > Resources > The Ins and Ouch of Carpal Tunnel

The ins and ouch of carpal tunnel syndrome

By Tanise Edwards, M.D.
Published by United HealthCare

carpaltunnel.jpgTo understand carpal tunnel syndrome, think of the median nerve — a main nerve that runs through your wrist — as the tracks of a train.

These tracks make it possible for impulses to travel through the forearm to the hand. But, they must run through a narrow, rigid tunnel of ligaments and bones in your wrist. This is the carpal tunnel. And, it can sometimes make for a very tight, uncomfortable journey.

Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when swollen tendons or tissue make the tunnel too narrow. People often think of it as an overuse injury. But, there's not enough evidence to say whether repetitive movements — such as keyboarding — can cause it. However, carpal tunnel syndrome is more common among people who do assembly line work or use vibrating hand tools regularly.

Feeling the squeeze
If the median nerve is compressed, you may start to feel tingling, burning and numbness in your palm and some of your fingers. These symptoms usually begin gradually. It's common to first notice them at night — after sleeping with flexed wrists.

Over time, you may also experience:

  • Shooting pain up the wrist and arm
  • Fingers that feel — but don't look — swollen
  • The urge to shake out your hand and wrist
  • Weakness in your hand

You may even start to feel you're losing your grip — literally. For instance, you might drop things — or find it hard to hold on to a book or to button your clothes.

What does cause it?
It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of carpal tunnel syndrome. Often, a mix of factors is behind it. For example, it occurs more often in women — possibly because they tend to have narrower carpal tunnels. Other things that may contribute:

Your genes and age. It tends to run in families. And, carpal tunnel syndrome occurs more often in middle-aged and older adults.

Other health conditions. Some chronic illnesses, such as arthritis, diabetes and thyroid disease, can affect or damage the median nerve. Some people — including pregnant women — may experience it because of pressure in the wrist from fluid buildup.

Easing the pressure
To find relief, the first step is to talk with your doctor. Your symptoms might signal something else, such as bursitis or tendonitis. Nerve tests can help you and your doctor know for sure.

If it's carpal tunnel syndrome, most people can find relief. Treatments may include wrist splints (often worn at night), pain relievers or injections of corticosteroids. In some severe and persistent cases, surgery may be recommended.*

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© 2013, United HealthCare Services, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.