Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is an injury caused by a pinched nerve in the wrist. The injury causes pain and numbness in the index and middle fingers and weakness of the thumb. Carpal tunnel receives its name from the eight bones in the wrist, called carpals, which form a "tunnel" through which the nerve leading to the hand extends.
Signs and Symptoms
Signs and symptoms of CTS include:
- Nighttime painful tingling in one or both hands, frequently causing sleep disturbance.
- Feeling of uselessness in the fingers.
- A sense that fingers are swollen even though little or no swelling is apparent.
- Daytime tingling in the hands followed by a decreased ability to squeeze things.
- Loss of strength in the muscle at the base of the thumb near the palm.
- Pain shooting from the hand up the arm as far as the shoulder.
What Causes It?
The carpal tunnel is filled with tendons (bundles of collagen fibers that attach muscle to bone) that control finger movement. Tasks requiring highly repetitive and forceful movements of the wrist can cause swelling around the tendons, resulting in a pinched nerve and producing CTS. Trauma, certain diseases, and pregnancy may also trigger CTS. On rare occasions, CTS may be genetic (some patients with CTS have carpal canals that are narrower than average). People who have short and wide hands with square wrists may also be at increased risk of CTS.
Who's Most At Risk?
People working with small hand tools in manufacturing, and those using a computer keyboard on a regular basis, are at highest risk.
Women are 2 to 5 times more likely than men to develop CTS. It most commonly occurs in people ages 30 to 60. CTS is associated with health conditions, such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, rubella, pregnancy, connective tissues diseases, obesity, and menopause. High caffeine, tobacco, or alcohol intake are other contributing risk factors.
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
If you have symptoms of CTS, you should see your health care provider. Your provider can help determine which treatment or combination of therapies will work best for you.
Your provider will perform a physical examination and some simple tests to determine if you have lost any sensation, or if you have weakness in your thumb or fingers. Your provider may also perform more sophisticated diagnostic procedures ranging from a nerve conduction study to electromyography (EMG). You may also get x-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or ultrasound imaging to reveal the cause and the nature of the injury.
Management of CTS is based on severity. Your health care provider may put your wrist in a splint or brace to keep your wrist from bending, and to minimize or prevent pressure on the nerve. You will probably need to wear the splint full time for 3 to 4 weeks, then at night only. Putting ice on your wrist, massaging the area, and doing stretching exercises may also help.
You can help prevent CTS or alleviate symptoms by making some simple changes in your work and leisure habits, such as:
- Stretch or flex your arms and fingers before beginning work and at frequent intervals.
- Alternate tasks to reduce the amount of repetitive movements.
- Modify or change daily activities that put pressure on your wrists.
- Modify your work environment. If you use a computer, have an adjustable keyboard table and chair, and a wrist rest.
Your provider may prescribe the following medications:
- Anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, to reduce inflammation (swelling, pain, and redness).
- Corticosteroids. A type of steroid, injected at the site of the carpal tunnel to reduce tendon swelling.
- Diuretics, if needed.
Surgical and Other Procedures
Patients who do not improve with medication and splinting may need surgery. Surgery provides complete relief in 95% of patients.
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
A comprehensive treatment plan for CTS may include a range of complementary and alternative therapies.
Nutrition and Supplements
You should only use supplements and complementary therapies under the supervision of a qualified practitioner. Some dietary supplements, herbs, or CAM treatments can potentially interfere with conventional medicines. Keep all providers informed regarding any therapies you may be considering.
Following these nutritional tips may help reduce symptoms:
- Eliminate all suspected food allergens, including dairy (milk, cheese, eggs, and ice cream), wheat (gluten), soy, corn, preservatives, and chemical food additives. Your provider may want to test you for food allergies.
- Eat foods high in B-vitamins and iron, such as whole grains (if no allergy), dark leafy greens (such as spinach and kale), and sea vegetables.
- Eat antioxidant-rich foods, including fruits (such as blueberries, cherries, and tomatoes), and vegetables (such as squash and bell pepper).
- Avoid refined foods, such as white breads, pastas, and sugar.
- Eat fewer red meats and more lean meats, cold-water fish, tofu (soy, if no allergy) or beans for protein.
- Use healthy oils in foods, such as olive oil or coconut oil.
- Reduce or eliminate trans fatty acids, found in commercially-baked goods, such as cookies, crackers, cakes, French fries, onion rings, donuts, processed foods, and margarine.
- Avoid coffee and other stimulants, alcohol, and tobacco.
You may address nutritional deficiencies with the following supplements:
- A multivitamin daily. Containing the antioxidant vitamins A, C, E, D, the B-complex vitamins and trace minerals such as magnesium, calcium, zinc, and selenium.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. Such as fish oil, 1 to 2 capsules or 1 tablespoonful (15 mL) of oil daily, to help reduce inflammation. Fish oils may increase bleeding in sensitive individuals, such as those taking blood-thinning medications (including aspirin).
- B-complex vitamin. 1 tablet daily, for symptoms of carpal tunnel. Some studies suggest low levels of riboflavin in the blood is associated with carpal tunnel syndrome and other inflammatory diseases.
- Vitamin C. 500 to 1,000 mg daily, as an antioxidant. Vitamin C can interact with some medications, including blood-thinning medications and chemotherapy agents. Speak to your doctor.
- Alpha-lipoic acid. 25 to 50 mg twice daily, for antioxidant support. Make sure you are not thiamine deficient if you take alpha-lipoic acid. Alpha-lipoic acid may interfere with certain thyroid medications and chemotherapy agents.
- Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM). 3,000 mg twice a day, to help reduce inflammation.
Herbs are a way to strengthen and tone the body's systems. As with any therapy, you should speak with your provider before starting treatment. You may use herbs as dried extracts (capsules, powders, or teas), glycerites (glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts). Unless otherwise indicated, make teas with 1 tsp. (5 g) herb per cup of hot water. Steep covered 5 to 10 minutes for leaf or flowers, and 10 to 20 minutes for roots. Drink 2 to 4 cups per day. You may use tinctures alone or in combination as noted.
- Green tea (Camellia sinensis). Standardized extract, 250 to 500 mg daily, for inflammation and antioxidant and immune effects. Use caffeine-free products. You may also prepare teas from the leaf of this herb.
- Bromelain (Ananus comosus). Standardized, 40 mg, 3 times daily, for pain and inflammation. Bromelain may interfere with certain medications, including some antibiotics. Bromelain may increase bleeding in sensitive individuals, such as those taking blood-thinning medications, including aspirin. People who are allergic to latex, pineapple, wheat, papain, and grass pollen may be sensitive to bromelain.
- Turmeric (Curcuma longa). Standardized extract, 300 mg, 3 times per day, for pain and inflammation. Turmeric may increase bleeding in sensitive individuals, such as those taking blood-thinning medications, including aspirin.
- Cat's claw (Uncaria tomentosa). Standardized extract, 20 mg, 3 times per day, for inflammation. Cat's claw can interact with certain medications, including blood pressure medications. Cat's claw may worsen autoimmune conditions and leukemia.
Although few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic therapies, professional homeopaths may consider remedies for the treatment of carpal tunnel symptoms based on their knowledge and experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account your constitutional type, includes your physical, emotional, and psychological makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate treatment for you.
An experienced homeopath can prescribe a regimen for treating CTS that is designed especially for you. Some of the most common acute remedies are listed below. An acute dose is 3 to 5 pellets of 12X - 30C every 1 to 4 four hours until symptoms clear up.
- Apis mellifica. For joints that are red, hot, or swollen.
- Arnica montana. 4 times per day, for a bruised, beat up feeling, soreness, achy muscles after trauma or overuse. This treatment may be especially effective if the gel or cream form is used topically.
- Guaiacum. For CTS that is improved by the use of cold applications.
Contrast hydrotherapy. Alternating hot and cold water applications -- may offer relief from CTS symptoms. This approach decreases inflammation, offers pain relief, and enhances healing. Immerse your wrists fully in hot water for 3 minutes, followed by 1 minute in cold water, and repeat 3 times. Do this 2 to 3 times daily.
Castor Oil Packs. Apply castor oil to a cloth, loosely wrap around wrist, and then cover with Saran Wrap. Apply a heating pad for a half hour, or without using a heating pad, sleep with the application on the wrist. Do this for 4 to 5 nights per week until improvement occurs.
Massage. Studies show that massage and trigger point therapy may help ease symptoms of CTS. Researchers recommend 30 minutes of massage twice a week.
According to the National Institutes of Health, acupuncture may help treat CTS. Studies suggest that acupuncture restores normal nerve function and can provide long-term relief of pain associated with CTS. Acupuncturists treat people with CTS based on an individualized assessment of the excesses and deficiencies of qi located in various meridians. In the case of CTS, acupuncturists often target the liver, gallbladder, and kidney meridians.
CTS is commonly treated by chiropractors. The methods most chiropractors use to treat CTS include manipulation of the wrist, elbow, and upper spine, ultrasound therapy, and wrist supports.
In one study, 25 individuals diagnosed with CTS reported significant improvements in several measures of strength, range of motion, and pain after receiving chiropractic treatment. Most of these improvements were maintained for at least 6 months.
A second study compared the effects of chiropractic care with conservative medical care (wrist supports and ibuprofen) among 91 people with CTS. Both groups experienced significant improvement in nerve function, finger sensation, and comfort. The researchers concluded that chiropractic treatment and conservative medical care are equally effective for people with CTS.
Massage may help prevent or relieve symptoms, especially in combination with rosemary or St. John's wort oil.
Most people's symptoms clear up within a few months with conventional treatment. If left untreated, CTS in advanced stages can become serious, involving a loss of sensation, muscle deterioration, and permanent loss of function.
If your wrist is placed in a splint or you receive corticosteroids, you will be monitored by your health care provider until treatment is completed. If you have surgery for CTS, you may need only a single follow up visit.
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Reviewed by Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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