If you spend a lot of time at a computer or working with your hands, you might be tempted to ignore tingling and numbness in your wrist and fingers.
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But you shouldn’t, says orthopaedic surgeon Steve Maschke, MD, because frequent burning, tingling or itching in the palm of your fingers can progress and become more painful over time. It’s likely that carpal tunnel syndrome is the culprit. It happens when swollen tendons press on a key nerve in your wrist.
“An early sign is waking up with a tingling sensation in your hands,” Dr. Maschke says. “If you have symptoms, it’s important to see a doctor early.”
If not addressed, carpal tunnel can cause you to lose grip strength and can even result in wasting away of muscles in the base of your thumb.
Where does carpal tunnel hurt?
The carpal tunnel is a narrow passageway at the base of your hand where tendons and nerves, including the median nerve, pass through. The median nerve controls sensation to the palm side of your thumb and the index, middle and ring finger.
When the tendons are inflamed or the passage becomes narrow for any other reason, they press on your median nerve. The result? You’ll feel pain and numbness in your hand, wrist and arm.
Why do certain people get carpal tunnel?
There are a number of factors that may be involved in whether someone develops carpal tunnel, Dr. Maschke says, including:
Genetics – Some people may simply have a genetic predisposition to carpal tunnel. “It is an issue of a size mismatch,” Dr. Maschke explains. “The carpal tunnel is a tight space, and it’s a smaller channel in some people than others.” This may be why women, who tend to have smaller carpal tunnels, are affected three times more often than men.
Repetitive vibration – Research shows that repetitive vibration in particular, but also repetition, wrist flexion and powerful grip, all raise the risk for carpal tunnel. “Think of what you’d feel when using a jack hammer or other piece of vibrating machinery,” Dr. Maschke says.
Underlying health conditions – These include pregnancy and menopause, which can cause fluid retention. Diabetes, obesity, thyroid problems and rheumatoid arthritis also may cause the median nerve to become compressed.
Injury – Trauma or injury to the wrist, such as a sprain or break, can cause swelling – resulting in tingling and pain. Mechanical problems in the wrist also can cause these issues.
Lifestyle factors – Spending a lot of time at the keyboard, sleeping with your wrist flexed, or performing tasks that involve repetitive motions with your hands and wrists or pressure on your palms can aggravate carpal tunnel symptoms.
Address early symptoms
It’s important to talk to your doctor about your symptoms, especially if they are getting worse.
However, if you’re in good health and have no neck pain or injury, Dr. Maschke says it’s safe to take a couple weeks to try these suggestions first:
- Use a brace –Try wearing braces to keep your wrists in a neutral position at night or while typing or doing other tasks with your hands.
- Change your work station setup – If you work at a computer, be sure you can sit with your wrists and hands in a neutral position. If you work on an assembly line, study the movements you make to see if you can ease stress on your wrists and hands. Also talk to your supervisor about ways to vary your activities so they’re less repetitive.
- Take over-the-counter pain meds – This may include aspirin, ibuprofen or other nonprescription pain relievers for mild or intermittent pain.
- Deal with health issues – Lose weight if you need to. Manage diabetes if you have it. “And if you smoke, quit,” Dr. Maschke says. “Smoking seems to exacerbate symptoms.”
Don’t assume every symptom in your hands is caused by carpal tunnel syndrome, Dr. Maschke says. Several things can be to blame, such as cubital tunnel syndrome and arthritis. If symptoms don’t improve quickly, make an appointment to see your doctor.