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Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is a common neurological disorder that occurs when the median nerve, which runs from your forearm into the palm of the hand, becomes pressed or squeezed at the wrist. You may feel numbness, weakness, pain in your hand and wrist, and your fingers may become swollen and useless. You might wake up and feel you need to “shake out” your hand or wrist.
The median nerve and the tendons that bend the fingers pass through the carpal tunnel—a narrow, rigid passageway of ligament and bones at the base of the hand. The median nerve provides feeling to the thumb, index, and middle finger, and part of the ring finger (but not the little finger). It also controls some small muscles at the base of the thumb.
Sometimes, thickening from the lining of irritated tendons or other swelling narrows the tunnel and compresses the median nerve. CTS is the most common and widely known of the entrapment neuropathies, in which one of the body's peripheral nerves is pressed on or squeezed.
You can sometimes treat carpal tunnel syndrome at home, but it may take months to heal. Your doctor can recommend treatments. CTS rarely recurs following treatment and home care.
Symptoms. Symptoms usually start gradually, with frequent numbness or tingling in the fingers, especially the thumb and the index and middle fingers. Symptoms often first appear in one or both hands during the night. The dominant hand is usually affected first and procures the most severe symptoms. Early symptoms include:
As symptoms worsen, people might feel:
In chronic and/or untreated cases, the muscles at the base of the thumb may shrink and waste away. Some people with very severe CTS cannot determine between hot and cold by touch and may burn their fingertips without knowing it.
Who is more likely to get carpal tunnel syndrome?
Carpal tunnel syndrome is often the result of a combination of factors that increase pressure on the median nerve and tendons in the carpal tunnel, rather than a problem with the nerve itself. Sometimes no single cause can be identified. Contributing factors may include:
The risk of developing CTS is not confined to people in a single industry or job but may be more reported in those performing assembly line work—such as manufacturing, sewing, finishing, cleaning, and meatpacking—than it is among data-entry personnel. Many people who have CTS report never have working at these types of jobs.
How is carpal tunnel syndrome diagnosed and treated?
Diagnosing CTS. Early diagnosis and treatment are important to avoid permanent damage to the median nerve.
Treating CTS. Treatments for carpal tunnel syndrome should begin as early as possible, under a doctor's direction. Underlying causes such as diabetes or arthritis should be treated first.
Recurrence of carpal tunnel syndrome following treatment is rare. Less than half of individuals report their hand(s) feeling completely normal following surgery. Some residual numbness or weakness is common.
How can self-care or lifestyle changes support a treatment plan for carpal tunnel syndrome? At night, keep your wrist straight while resting or asleep to prevent pressing on the nerve and carpal tunnel.
Tasks at home or work, along with workstations, tools, and tool handles, can be redesigned to help your wrist maintain a natural position during work. Wearing fingerless gloves can help keep hands warm and flexible. At the workplace, workers can do on-the-job conditioning, perform stretching exercises, take frequent rest breaks, and use correct posture and wrist position. Jobs can be rotated among workers. Employers can develop ergonomic programs to adapt workplace conditions and job demands to the capabilities of workers.
What are the latest updates on carpal tunnel syndrome?
The mission of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) is to seek fundamental knowledge of the brain and nervous system and to use that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease. The NINDS is a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the leading supporter of biomedical research in the world. NINDS is the leading NIH funding Institute on nerve disorders, including carpal tunnel syndrome.
Scientists supported by NINDS are studying the factors that lead to long-lasting neuropathies (diseases or malfunction of nerves), and how the affected nerves are related to symptoms of pain, numbness, and functional loss. Researchers also are examining biomechanical stresses that contribute to the nerve damage responsible for symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome in order to better understand, treat, and prevent CTS and other costly and disabling occupational illnesses.
Scientists funded through NIH's National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health are investigating the effects of acupuncture on pain, loss of median nerve function, and changes in the brain associated with CTS. In addition, a randomized clinical trial designed to evaluate the effectiveness of osteopathic manipulative treatment in conjunction with standard medical care is underway. Evaluations of these therapies and other therapies will help to tailor individual treatment programs.
Another NIH component, the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Disorders (NIAMS), supports research on tissue damage associated with repetitive motion disorders, including CTS. Scientists have developed animal models that are helping to understand and characterize connective tissue in hopes of reducing harmful tissue buildup and identifying new treatments.
More information about carpal tunnel syndrome research supported by NINDS and other NIH Institutes and Centers can be found using NIH RePORTER, a searchable database of current and past research projects supported by NIH and other federal agencies. RePORTER also includes links to publications and resources from these projects.
For research articles and summaries on carpal tunnel syndrome, search PubMed, which contains citations from medical journals and other sites.
How can I or my loved one help improve care for someone with carpal tunnel syndrome?
Consider participating in a clinical trial so clinicians and scientists can learn more about carpal tunnel syndrome. Clinical research uses human volunteers to help researchers learn more about a disorder and perhaps find better ways to safely detect, treat, or prevent disease.
All types of volunteers are needed—those who are healthy or may have an illness or disease—of all different ages, sexes, races, and ethnicities to ensure that study results apply to as many people as possible, and that treatments will be safe and effective for everyone who will use them.
Where can I find more information about carpal tunnel syndrome?
The following resources may help individuals, families, friends, and caregivers of people living with CTS:
Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS)
Phone: 301-496-8190 or 877-226-4267
Information about CTS is also available:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Phone: 800-311-3435 or 404-639-3311
National Library of Medicine
Phone: 301-496-6308 or 888-346-3656
Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)
Content source: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/disorders/carpal-tunnel-syndrome. Accessed July 11, 2023.
The information in this document is for general educational purposes only. It is not intended to substitute for personalized professional advice. Although the information was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, MedLink, its representatives, and the providers of the information do not guarantee its accuracy and disclaim responsibility for adverse consequences resulting from its use. For further information, consult a physician and the organization referred to herein.