What are the causes of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome is becoming a household name in this age that we live in, where computer work, and other repetitive motion activities are as common as drinking coffee in the morning.

Sure you’ve heard of it, but maybe you don’t know much about carpal tunnel syndrome. You possibly know someone who has suffered from it. Maybe that someone is you.

Is it possible that the pain and slight tingling up your forearm are symptoms? Could the intermittent pain in your wrist be an indicator? It comes and goes, but definitely has your attention.

What causes carpal tunnel syndrome?

Repetitive motion contributes to many cases, but this is not the lone culprit.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by compression of the median nerve, a nerve that runs from the forearm up the wrist and into the palm of the hand through a passageway called the carpal tunnel. The median nerve controls movement and feeling to certain parts of the hand. Compression can be caused by inflammation of tendons and ligaments in the wrist area due to an acute injury such as a wrist fracture, or a repetitive motion activity such as typing on a computer keyboard.

Carpal tunnel syndrome usually occurs in the dominant hand; however, nearly half of all people who suffer experience symptoms in both hands. These symptoms can range from mild numbness and tingling to excruciating pain. In most cases, there is burning, tingling and numbness to the thumb and first three fingers.

According to the Mayo Clinic, carpal tunnel syndrome is more common in women than men, with its greatest impact on women over the age of 55. This may be due to the fact that women generally have smaller carpal tunnels than men, which means that there is smaller margin for error if inflammation occurs.

Some repetitive motion activities that may cause carpal tunnel syndrome are:

  • Typing
  • Writing
  • Hammering
  • Using a screwdriver
  • Operating a jack hammer or chain saw
  • Cutting or styling hair
  • Playing an instrument

Other causes of compression to the median nerve include:

  • Water retention
  • Arthritis
  • Tendonitis
  • Bone spurs
  • Obesity

There are several risk factors for carpal tunnel syndrome, which may include:

  • Trauma- Acute injury, such as a fractured wrist, can cause compression of the median nerve.
  • Work habits/environment- If you work in an office, your space may not be ergonomically correct. Let’s say you habitually bang away at the keyboard, with contorted wrists, extended elbows, and bad posture in general. You may want to reconsider your work habits and purchase ergonomic equipment. Also, the use of vibrating tools, such as a jack hammer, can cause nerve damage. With each motion, you are increasing your risk of carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • Lack of exercise- When your heart rate increases, blood circulates through your system, and your bones and connective tissue are strengthened. Exercise may not seem urgently necessary, but it is very important when it comes to reducing your risk of any injury. Unfortunately, if you fall into the “lack of exercise” category, you may have just removed all of these benefits. In addition, obesity increases your risk for carpal tunnel syndrome. The excess fat that sits stagnate in the forearm and wrist area can put pressure on the median nerve– another reason to shed those extra pounds.
  • Smoking and alcohol abuse- Smoking slows down blood flow. Excessive alcohol intake negative affects every cell in the body, and can increase the risk of nerve damage, including the median nerve.
  • Pregnancy- The body retains water during pregnancy, and can temporarily cause carpal tunnel symptoms, which may occur in both wrists. These symptoms are usually not severe enough to require delivery, and may go away on their own after delivery.
  • Diabetes and Hypothyroidism- Both disorders can lead to swelling of membranes, which may be the cause of carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • Tumors- In rare cases, this can cause pressure on the median nerve.
  • Hereditary- If you inherited a relatively narrow carpal tunnel, you may be at a higher risk for carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • Menopause- Can cause overall aching to joints, tendons, and muscles.

Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include:

  • Weak grip when grasping hold of things.
  • Tingling or numbness of the hand, like it has fallen asleep.
  • Occasional pain of the forearm.
  • Swelling of the forearm or wrist area.
  • Aching pain when you bend or flex the wrist.
  • Waking up feeling the need to shake out the hand to stimulate feeling.

As symptoms get worse, sleep patterns will also be affected because of the discomfort. Symptoms are usually worse during the evening and early morning.  In addition, the thumb muscles may also become weaker, making it difficult to do routine things like open a jar, or hold a fork while you eat.

As mentioned, some of the causes of carpal tunnel can be mitigated by modifying or avoiding the what caused the symptoms. Of course, this may not always be possible, especially in cases that can’t be controlled, or have nothing to do with repetitive motion activities. Keep in mind that 95% of all cases can be resolved without surgery, which is considered the last resort.

If your physician determines that you have carpal tunnel syndrome, be aware of the many options that exist that can lead you to complete recovery:

  • Place an ice pack on the wrist to reduce the pain and swelling.
  • Do hand exercises periodically throughout the day. Gently rotate the wrist in a circle for a couple minutes at a time to stimulate circulation.
  • Purchase a wrist brace and wear it throughout the day and night.
  • Make sure your office chair is at the right height, with proper armrests.
  • Take frequent breaks from repetitive work.
  • Be aware of your body mechanics and posture.
  • Modify your diet to include vitamin C, vitamin E, and flax seed oil. All have been known to increase blood flow and reduce inflammation.

By understanding the cause and possible treatments, you are making significant strides in avoiding or defeating carpal tunnel syndrome. Now go and share your new found knowledge with others.