For many people with tingling, pain, or numbness in their fingers, carpal tunnel syndrome is the first thing to come to mind. It’s a common condition, but it’s not the only one that causes problems in your hands and wrists. It helps to know what to look for so you can get the right care. Early treatment can make a big difference in how long it takes to get better.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by pressure on your median nerve. This nerve gives you feeling in your thumb and all your fingers except your pinky. When it goes through your wrist, it passes through the carpal tunnel -- a narrow path that’s made of bone and ligament. If you get any swelling in your wrist, this tunnel gets squeezed and pinches your median nerve, which causes your symptoms.
What Are the Early Signs?
Typically, the symptoms start out slowly, with burning, numbness, tingling, or pain. You might feel it in your thumb and any of your fingers, but not your pinkie. The strange feeling may also travel up your forearm.
Often, symptoms start at night. That’s because most people sleep with their wrists bent, which causes pressure on the median nerve. You might wake up feeling like you need to shake your hands out.
As your condition gets worse, you may notice symptoms during the day, as well. This often happens when you’re doing something where your wrist is bent up or down for a long time, like driving a car, reading a newspaper, or holding your phone.
At first, symptoms tend to come and go. But over time, they occur more often and become worse.
You might also notice other symptoms:
- Your fingers feel swollen, even though they don’t look like it.
- Pain and tingling travel up your forearm to your shoulder.
- “Shocks” come and go in your thumb and fingers.
Over time, carpal tunnel can also affect your grip and ability to pinch. Here are some things that could be happening:
- You drop things more often (due to numbness or weakened muscles).
- You’re having a hard time working with small objects, like the buttons on your shirt.
- It’s harder to make a fist than it used to be.
In more severe cases, you can lose muscle at the base of your thumb. Or you may no longer be able to tell hot from cold just by touch.
When Should I Call a Doctor?
Anytime you have any of the common symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome on a regular basis. When you get care early on, you may find that basic options, such as rest or wearing a wrist brace, work well. That’ll allow you to avoid more serious treatment like surgery. Without any treatment, your symptoms could become permanent.
What Other Conditions Can Cause Similar Symptoms?
Several of them. One, which doctors call de Quervain tenosynovitis, causes problems with the tendons that control your thumb. It hurts to turn your wrist, make a fist, or try to grasp an object. Your doctor can do some simple tests to tell whether you have this condition or carpal tunnel.
Other health problems that may seem like carpal tunnel syndrome include:
- Ligament damage
- Neuropathy, a nerve problem
- Wrist injury, such as a fracture
- Cervical (C6-7) root compression in the neck
It’s not as common, but for some people, carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by other health issues, like:
- Amyloidosis, a disease where proteins collect in your organs
- Birth control pills
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Thyroid problems
Check with your doctor to see if you have another condition that might cause carpal tunnel syndrome. If they find you don’t have one, ask them to send you for a nerve-conduction study --what doctors call an electromyography, or EMG.