Does the thumb side of your hand feel like it’s going to sleep — that weak, numb, pins-and-needles feeling — for no apparent reason? You may suspect that you have carpal tunnel syndrome.
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The good news is that there are a number of methods you can try at home to ease your pain. And if those don’t work, surgery can be a highly effective treatment.
What is carpal tunnel syndrome?
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a fairly common condition that affects the hand and wrist, says hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder surgeon William Seitz, MD.
“Symptoms include numbness, tingling and pain, usually in your thumb and the first three fingers of your hand,” Dr. Seitz says.
Carpal tunnel syndrome happens when the median nerve, which runs from your forearm to your hand through a narrow space called the carpal tunnel, is compressed or pinched, Dr. Seitz says.
Nine tendons that flex the first three fingers and thumb also run through the carpal tunnel.
Anything that makes the carpal tunnel smaller — and pinches the median nerve — can result in carpal tunnel syndrome, Dr. Seitz says. These can include:
- Medical conditions such as hypothyroidism, rheumatoid arthritis, and diabetes
- Repetitive hand movements, especially if the wrist is bent so that your hands are lower than your wrists
While carpal tunnel syndrome can be uncomfortable or painful, you can treat it at home. The first step to take is to stop the activity that is causing the compression.
“Think about the activities that you think may be causing numbness and pain in your wrist and try to stop or reduce them,” Dr. Seitz says. “You can resume the activity when your symptoms improve.”
Here are five ways you can treat your carpal tunnel syndrome at home:
- Ice your wrist or soak it in an ice bath for 10 minutes to 15 minutes once or twice an hour.
- Relieve nighttime pain by gently shaking your hand and wrist or hanging your hand over the side of the bed.
- Buy a wrist splint at the drugstore to keep your hand properly aligned. It may help to wear the splint at night to keep you from flexing or overextending your wrist while you sleep.
- Take a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as ibuprofen or naproxen to relieve pain. Take NSAIDs with food and after consulting your primary care physician to make sure there are no medical reasons — such as interaction with other medicines you may be taking — to avoid these pain relievers.
- Immerse your hand in warm water — with a temperature between 92 and 100 degrees — and gently move or flex your hand and wrist. Do this three to four times a day.
When it’s time to see the doctor
If these home treatments don’t ease your pain in one or two weeks, it might be time to see an orthopaedic physician, who specializes in treatment of bones, joints and muscles.
“Your doctor may recommend surgery if there’s severe damage to your median nerve or to prevent permanent sensory or functional loss,” Dr. Seitz says.
The surgery involves cutting the band of tissue in the wrist that crosses the median nerve to lessen the pressure.
“Over time, surgery may be the best route to permanent relief,” Dr. Seitz says.