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Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Reviewed by: Melanie L. Pitone, MD
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What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

When someone has carpal (say: KAR-pul) tunnel syndrome, the "tunnel" of bones and ligaments in the wrist becomes narrow. This narrowed tunnel pinches a nerve, making the thumb and fingers feel tingly or numb.

Someone with carpal tunnel syndrome may have trouble typing on the computer or playing a video game. In fact, those activities may cause carpal tunnel syndrome in the first place.

What Causes Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

It's pretty tight inside the carpal tunnel. In fact, there's barely enough room for the nine tendons and the one nerve that pass through it. If anything takes up extra room in the tunnel, the nerve gets pinched, which causes numbness and tingling in the area of the hand where the nerve works. Swelling can happen when someone does the same thing over and over, like typing on a computer or playing video games or a musical instrument for long periods of time. This swelling can pinch the nerve.

Other activities that can pinch the nerve are gymnastics, especially handstands, and racquet sports, like tennis.

Broken or dislocated wrist bones or even sprains that cause swelling around the carpal tunnel may lead to it too.

Who Gets Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Usually adults get carpal tunnel syndrome. Rarely, kids can get it too. Most people who get carpal tunnel are over 30 years old, and more women than men have it. People with some medical problems can get carpal tunnel syndrome including arthritis, thyroid problems, and diabetes. Carpal tunnel syndrome is also more common in pregnant women and in people who are overweight.

How Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Diagnosed and Treated?

To find out if a person has carpal tunnel syndrome, doctors and nurses ask questions about how the person’s hand feels and check out the hand.

A brace or splint can help people with mild carpal tunnel syndrome. It is usually worn at night and keeps a person's wrists from bending. Keeping the wrist straight opens the carpal tunnel so the nerve has as much room as possible. Resting the wrist will allow the swollen tendons to shrink. Medicines like ibuprofen can also help reduce the swelling.

Sometimes the doctor uses a medicine called cortisone (say: KOR-tih-zone) to reduce inflammation and swelling in the carpal tunnel. This medicine is given by a shot. When the person feels better, the doctor may suggest doing wrist exercises and a better hand position when doing things like typing.

If none of these treatments help, the person may need surgery to release the pressure on the median nerve. This surgery is really quick and the person can go home the same day. Most people can get better from carpal tunnel syndrome and prevent the symptoms from coming back.

How Can Someone Prevent Carpal Tunnel?

Though not many kids get carpal tunnel syndrome, it's a good idea to develop good habits now that can prevent this problem when you are older. When you spend a lot of time on the computer or when you text, be sure to take breaks and not overdo it. Just getting up to stretch or do something else for a while can help. You might even set a timer to go off every hour or so to remind you to take your breaks.

At the computer, be sure your work area is comfortable. Use a chair that can be adjusted for your height so that you aren't sitting down too low or up too high. Your chair, computer screen, and keyboard should all be in line. And try to follow these rules while sitting:

  • Hold your elbows at your sides with your wrists in front.
  • Keep your forearms and wrists straight and don't bend your wrists up or down.
  • If you use a wrist pad, don't press into it when you type.
  • Place things you use a lot within close reach, so you don’t have to reach too far.

When you take these steps, you're treating your wrists just right and keeping them healthy. 

Reviewed by: Melanie L. Pitone, MD
Date reviewed: September 2020