The temperature is dropping and snow will be here before you know it. The colder it gets, the more you notice that your hands start to feel stiff and swollen, you lose flexibility in your wrist and fingers, and you have a sharp pain in your arm. You try to ignore the pain, thinking that’ll go away. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. These are the signs of carpal tunnel syndrome. While carpal tunnel can hinder your life at any time of the year, it is commonly worse in the cold months. Here’s what you need to know…
What is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
According to Mayo Clinic, carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by pressure on the median nerve (the nerve that runs from the forearm into the palm of the hand). Carpal tunnel occurs when one of the parts involved becomes inflamed, narrowing the passageway, and causing pain and discomfort in the area by placing pressure on the median nerve. As it progresses, carpal tunnel can interfere with hand strength and sensation and can lead to decreased hand function. The most common symptoms are pain, numbness, weakness, and tingling in the hand and arm.
What Causes Carpal Tunnel?
Doctors estimate that 4-10 million Americans have carpal tunnel syndrome. So, what is causing this nerve disorder? Here are the most common factors:
- Repetitive Hand Use – With excessive use, comes wear and tear. Occupations and activities with repetitive hand use can leave people more susceptible to carpal tunnel syndrome. Tasks like using vibrating hand tools on construction projects or typing on a computer keyboard for long periods of time can increase your risk.
- Heredity – Some people have smaller carpal tunnels than others due to heredity. These traits run in families and increase your likelihood of developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Health Conditions – Rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, obesity, and problems with the thyroid gland can contribute to carpal tunnel syndrome.
How Do You Treat Carpal Tunnel?
For most people, our hands are an essential part of our lives. They are needed to do even the simplest things like eating, writing, or tying a shoelace. We often don’t think about how useful our hands are until something comes along and changes that — like carpal tunnel syndrome. Luckily, there are numerous ways to treat carpal tunnel.
- Bracing and immobilization – This is mostly done at night, but it may be done during the day for more painful cases. This reduces movement and pressure on your wrist and gives the swelling time to subside.
- Anti-inflammatory drugs – This includes ibuprofen, Aleve, and other general anti-inflammatories. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories may be recommended as well.
- Activity Changes – Temporary, or sometimes permanent, changes of activity may be required to alleviate the pain and reduce the swelling. Whether this is temporary or permanent depends on the severity of the carpal tunnel.
- Nerve Gliding exercises – These exercises are recommended by a doctor or physical therapist and help your median nerve move more freely throughout the tunnel.
- Steroid Injections – A cortisone shot may be injected into the carpal tunnel area and help relieve symptoms. The shot will only last for weeks to months at a time, so if the pain persists, you’ll need to repeat the injection.
- Open Carpal Tunnel Release – This surgery essentially opens up the carpal tunnel to create more space for the nerves and ligaments which travel through it. The doctor makes a small incision in your palm and divides the carpal tunnel roof, increasing the size of the carpal tunnel. The ligament may gradually grow back after but there will still be more space and less pressure on the median nerve.
- Endoscopic Carpal Tunnel Release – Similar to the open carpal tunnel release, except with a camera. The doctor makes one or two incisions in your palm and views the carpal tunnel with an endoscope, unlike open surgery that can be viewed with the naked eye. The doctor then uses the same method to divide the carpal tunnel to open in and release pressure on the median nerve.
Most surgeries turn into life-long success and improve the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome but the gradual recovery may take up to a year. Strength is not expected to return for 2 to 3 months following surgery or even 6 to 12 months for more severe cases. Elevate your hand above your heart and wiggle your fingers to reduce the swelling, soreness, and stiffness from the surgery. This soreness will likely last several weeks to several months.
It’s important that you act quickly when dealing with carpal tunnel symptoms. Without any form of treatment, the pain will worsen over time. To schedule an appointment with one of our board-certified hand surgeons, Dr. Hurlbut or Dr. Machado, please contact us at 402-489-4700.