If you’ve ever seen a clerk in the grocery store wearing a wrist brace, chances are it’s because they have carpal tunnel syndrome. While you may think of carpal tunnel syndrome as a wrist problem, it’s actually a form of nerve compression resulting from pressure on your median nerve where it runs through your forearm. Your median nerve runs the entire length of your arm, passes through the carpal tunnel in your wrist, and continues to your hand where it provides feeling to your thumb and three middle fingers.
Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when inflammation and swelling of the tendons, ligaments, and bones that make up the carpal tunnel cause pressure and impingement on the nerve. Symptoms of this condition include numbness and tingling in your hand and fingers (except your pinky). You may also have burning or nervy shock-like pains, weakness and difficulty holding onto objects, and muscle cramps in the affected hand.
Carpal tunnel symptoms tend to be worse at night, both because nerve pain in general is worse at night, but also because your sleeping position may aggravate this condition. Many people with carpal tunnel syndrome report that they wake in the morning with numbness and tingling, and during the day their symptoms are aggravated by holding, gripping, or performing motions with their wrist bent.
Early on in this condition, shaking the affected hand may help relieve your symptoms temporarily. However, as your carpal tunnel syndrome gets worse, this may not help, and in fact, you may begin to lose grip strength, feeling, coordination in your hand, and the pain may increase.
Carpal tunnel syndrome can be caused by any repetitive motions involving your wrist, such as typing or working with tools. Especially aggravating are motions that use a great deal of force, such as hammering; the vibration of power tools; and extreme motions, such as knitting or turning a screwdriver. The risk of developing carpal tunnel is higher for women, having a job which involves repetitive motions, having a family history of this condition, or having a previous fracture or dislocation of your wrist. In addition, certain conditions, such as being pregnant, obesity, a thyroid imbalance, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis can increase your chances of developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
Treating Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Standard treatments for this condition include rest, anti-inflammatory medications, avoiding repetitive motions, stretching, and immobilization. In most cases, immobilization involves splinting your wrist in a neutral position (not bent or extended) to decrease the pressure on the median nerve and to rest your wrist. You may be instructed to wear the splint at night to alleviate nighttime symptoms and help you sleep better. If conservative treatments don’t help, steroid shots to reduce the swelling, or surgery to release the pressure on the entrapped nerve may be necessary.
A number of people who suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome have turned to acupuncture for relief with good results. Research on the use of acupuncture for this condition confirms that it’s beneficial, working as well as or better than splinting or anti-inflammatory medications. A number of studies have found that acupuncture decreases inflammation, reduces pain and numbness in the hand, restores manual dexterity, and helps to repair the nerve damage by remapping a part of your brain associated with the carpal tunnel. In addition, researchers have found that acupuncture-related improvements lasted for at least three months after treatments ended.
Preventing Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
There are 7 things that you can do to prevent carpal tunnel from occurring in the first place:
- Keep your wrist in a neutral position as much as possible, especially when you’re working with your hands. This means that your hand and wrist are in one plane—not bent forward or backward.
- Try to avoid resting on your hands, as this bends your wrist back and compresses the carpal tunnel and median nerve.
- If you’re doing work that involves a lot of repetitive hand and wrist motions, take regular breaks.
- Opt for and use ergonomic tools and working positions whenever possible. This includes the height placement of your desk, computer monitor, and especially the positioning of your mouse. Ergonomic keyboards and industrial tools are also available that have been developed with special hand grips and design angles to reduce carpal tunnel stress.
- When you can, switch hands if you’re performing repetitive motions.
- Avoid constant gripping and twisting, such as opening jars or wringing out wet clothes. And when possible, relax your grip.
- Use a wrist splint, especially at night and when you’re performing repetitive movements. A splint keeps your wrist in a neutral position, which decreases stress on the structures of your carpal tunnel.
While carpal tunnel isn’t a life-threatening condition, it can definitely cause pain and disability, and sideline you from many activities that you enjoy. A little prevention, self-care, and acupuncture can add up to the relief you deserve and can help restore your wrist and hand to full function.
Cindy Chamberlain is an acupuncturist in Overland Park, KS and the founder of Eastern Healing Solutions, LLC. She is licensed in Kansas and Missouri and has been practicing traditional Chinese medicine since 1996.