What is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Pip Jarvis
carpal tunnel syndrome

You’ve no doubt heard of it, but exactly what is carpal tunnel syndrome, and who does it affect? According to The Alignment Studio Physiotherapist Jane Lau, carpal tunnel syndrome is a painful disorder that results in numbness, pins and needles and pain in the hand and wrist ­– especially at night, as well as weakness and burning sensations. Sound familiar? Read on to discover more.

Where is the carpal tunnel & what is carpal tunnel syndrome?

The carpal tunnel refers to the narrow passageway at the base of your hand, over your wrist. The base of the carpal tunnel is formed by the carpal bones (small bones of the hand) and the roof is formed by a strong band of connective tissue called the transverse carpal ligament. The carpal tunnel allows nerves and tendons to past through the wrist into the hand.

The tunnel is small in size and has little capacity to stretch or increase in size. Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by compression of the median nerve as it runs from wrist to the hand.

What causes carpal tunnel syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common complaint that can be triggered by anything that causes swelling in the wrist, such as arthritis, pregnancy, injury to the wrist or repetitive hand movements (overuse).

Certain individuals are more at risk of carpal tunnel syndrome. These include:

  • Pregnant women – due to extra fluid retention
  • Men and women with arthritis
  • Obese individuals
  • Women aged between 40-60
  • People who constantly engage in work or activities that involve repetitive hand and wrist movements, eg. painters, hairdressers, musicians

The condition is significantly more common in women than men, in part due to hormonal factors during pregnancy and menopause. Females also tend to have a smaller carpal tunnel, making them more susceptible.

What are the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome?

Those experiencing the hand disorder may experience some (or all) of the following:

  • Numbness, pain or pins and needles in the hand – often worse overnight*
  • Sensation of swelling in the fingers
  • Hand weakness, dropping things, difficulty clenching hand or gripping objects
  • Pain, tingling or burning sensations that may radiate up the arm, sometimes as far as the shoulders/neck
  • Heavy arm sensation

* Symptoms are typically worse at night, due to natural flexion of the wrist that may occur during sleep. Fluid may also accumulate, resulting in pressure on the median nerve. For these reasons, bracing and elevation may be required at night.

How is it diagnosed?

A physiotherapist can diagnose carpal tunnel syndrome. As well as a thorough physical examination, your physio may refer you for a nerve conduction test, ultrasound or MRI.

How is carpal tunnel syndrome treated? 

Depending on the severity of your condition, treatment will vary. The first step will be rest, with a cessation of repetitive activities causing swelling within the wrist. Other treatments include:

  • Cool packs to reduce swelling
  • Diuretics to reduce fluid retention
  • Hand elevation overnight
  • Splinting of the wrist
  • Physiotherapy
  • Exercise prescription
  • Cortisone injections
  • Surgery

How can physiotherapy help?

Your physiotherapist can assist with bracing or splinting, soft tissue massage and wrist/ carpal mobilisation. They will be able to provide advice on how to manage swelling, ergonomic corrections, and strengthening and stretching exercises.

By improving posture, ergonomics, technique and improving flexibility and strength of the hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder, you will reduce the risk of recurrence.

To put an end to your hand or wrist pain, book an appointment with one of our Melbourne CBD physios today!