Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

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Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: A Comprehensive Guide to Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment


Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is a common condition that causes pain, numbness, and tingling in the hand and forearm. It occurs when the median nerve, which runs through a narrow passageway in the wrist called the carpal tunnel, is compressed. This compression can result from a variety of factors, including repetitive hand movements, pregnancy, and certain medical conditions.

Anatomy of the Carpal Tunnel

The carpal tunnel is a narrow, rigid channel located on the palm side of the wrist. It is bounded by the carpal bones on the bottom and the transverse carpal ligament on the top. The median nerve, which controls sensation and movement in the thumb, index finger, middle finger, and ring finger, runs through the carpal tunnel along with nine tendons that flex the fingers and thumb.

Causes of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

CTS is primarily caused by any condition that leads to narrowing of the carpal tunnel or increased pressure on the median nerve. Common causes include:

  • Repetitive hand movements: Occupations that require repetitive hand movements, such as typing, using a computer mouse, or working on an assembly line, can put excessive strain on the median nerve.
  • Pregnancy: Hormonal changes and fluid retention during pregnancy can increase pressure on the median nerve.
  • Medical conditions: Certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and hypothyroidism, can increase inflammation and swelling in the wrist, leading to CTS.
  • Trauma: Fractures or dislocations of the wrist can damage the median nerve or the carpal tunnel itself.
  • Anatomy: Some people have a naturally narrow carpal tunnel, which increases their risk of CTS.

Symptoms of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

The hallmark symptoms of CTS include:

  • Pain: Numbness, tingling, and pain in the thumb, index finger, middle finger, and ring finger.
  • Night pain: Symptoms often worsen at night due to fluid accumulation in the wrist.
  • Numbness and tingling: Persistent feelings of numbness and tingling in the affected fingers.
  • Weakness: Difficulty with fine motor skills, such as writing or buttoning a shirt.
  • Swollen wrist: In some cases, swelling may be visible in the wrist area.

Diagnosis of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Diagnosing CTS involves a physical examination and a review of symptoms. The doctor will assess the range of motion in the wrist, check for sensory changes, and perform the following tests:

  • Phalen’s test: Bending the wrists forward for a minute to compress the median nerve.
  • Tinel’s sign: Tapping over the carpal tunnel to elicit a tingling sensation.
  • Durkan’s test: Flexing the wrists backward and downward to stretch the median nerve.

If these tests are inconclusive, the doctor may order an electromyography (EMG) or nerve conduction study to confirm the diagnosis. These tests measure electrical activity in the median nerve to assess its function.

Treatment of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

The treatment for CTS depends on the severity of the condition and the underlying cause. Conservative treatments include:

  • Rest and splinting: Immobilizing the wrist with a brace or splint can help reduce pressure on the median nerve.
  • Activity modification: Avoiding activities that aggravate symptoms can prevent further damage to the nerve.
  • Physical therapy: Exercises can help strengthen the wrist and improve range of motion.
  • Cold therapy: Applying ice packs to the wrist can reduce inflammation and pain.
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can alleviate pain and inflammation.
  • Corticosteroid injections: Injections of corticosteroids can reduce inflammation and provide temporary relief.

If conservative treatments fail to provide adequate relief, surgical intervention may be considered. Surgery involves cutting the transverse carpal ligament to widen the carpal tunnel and relieve pressure on the median nerve. Endoscopic surgery is a minimally invasive technique that allows the ligament to be cut through a small incision.

Prevention of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

While some risk factors for CTS are unavoidable, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk:

  • Maintain a neutral wrist position: Keep your wrists straight when typing or using a computer mouse.
  • Take breaks: Take frequent breaks from repetitive hand movements to give your wrists a rest.
  • Strengthen your wrists: Do wrist exercises to improve flexibility and strength.
  • Avoid excessive pressure on your wrists: Avoid leaning on your wrists or using excessive force when lifting objects.
  • Use ergonomic tools: Consider using ergonomic keyboards, mice, and wrist rests to reduce strain on your wrists.
  • Manage underlying medical conditions: If you have a medical condition that can contribute to CTS, work with your doctor to manage it effectively.


Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common condition that can cause significant pain and discomfort. By understanding the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options, you can take steps to manage the condition effectively and prevent it from progressing.

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