Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: The Good, The Bad and The Unavoidable

Most everyone has heard of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, and with good reason. According to a 2010 study by the Center for Disease Control, 3.1 percent of employed adults ages 18-64 had suffered from the condition within a 12-month period. To put that number into perspective, that is the equivalent of 7,484 Renoites with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome annually (3.1 percent of the 241,445 men, women and children living in Reno in 2015). 

The bad news: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome cannot really be avoided if you’re predisposed to the condition. Stretching the fingers and wrists before, during and after repetitive movements can help slow or stop the progression, but it cannot prevent it entirely.

The good news: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is highly treatable, often with conservative, non-surgical methods. And if a patient does need surgery, it is typically a simple outpatient procedure, usually with local anesthesia, that lasts approximately five to ten minutes. In many cases, the only post-surgical restriction is a 10-pound weight-carrying limit during the healing process.

So what is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome? Hand and upper extremity specialist Dr. Michael Lilyquist of Great Basin Orthopaedics covers the basics, shares some little-known facts and debunks a few myths.

What It Is

The carpal tunnel, comprised of the median nerve and nine tendons from the forearm through to the hand, controls finger movement. When the nerve is compressed and becomes swollen, numbness, tingling, pain and/or weakness can occur in the hand. These are the four main symptoms of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome can often be diagnosed with a simple physical exam. “The characteristic numbness in the thumb through ring finger, and not the pinky finger, is one telltale sign,” said Dr. Lilyquist. Other tests including an electrodiagnostic study are often performed as well to understand the severity of the condition, and to rule out other possible causes.

Caught early, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome can be addressed with conservative treatment options such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, corticosteroid injections, and wrist splinting, which keeps the nerve from being compressed.

“The longer you have symptoms, the more likely you are to need surgery,” said Dr. Lilyquist. “Left untreated for an extended period of time, permanent nerve damage can occur.”

There are two main methods of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome surgery: open release and endoscopy, both of which relieve the pressure on the median nerve. Be sure to discuss the benefits of each method with your surgeon.

What It’s Not

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is NOT the only condition that causes hand numbness, tingling, pain and/or weakness. It’s just the most common and well-known condition, so it’s sort of a buzzword among self-diagnosers. For a proper diagnosis, see an orthopaedic specialist.

Contrary to popular belief, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is NOT specifically caused by time spent using a computer keyboard or mouse. “People think that symptoms are aggravated by computer use, but studies show that that’s not actually true,” said Dr. Lilyquist.

In fact, the way we sleep is one of the biggest culprits of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. “When we sleep, we flex our elbows and wrists. That puts pressure on the nerve in the carpal tunnel,” said Dr. Lilyquist. “People wake up with tingling, pain and weakness.”

As mentioned before, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome does NOT require a large incision. Though there are risks associated with any surgery, the actual procedure involves a very small opening under local anesthesia (unless the patient wants to be put to sleep). Recovery time today involves much less pain than that from earlier surgical techniques.

What To Do If You Suspect Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Rule number one: Don’t wait. See a specialist. The surgical procedure is very common so most surgeons are comfortable doing it. However, hand surgeons see a higher prevalence of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, so they typically have more experience, which benefits the patient. 

To schedule a consultation with Dr. Lilyquist or any of the well-seasoned orthopaedic surgeons at Great Basin Orthopaedics, contact us today.