Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Article by John Miller

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

What is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

carpal tunnel syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a painful hand disorder caused by pressure on your median nerve as it runs through the wrist’s carpal tunnel. Symptoms include numbness, pins and needles, and pain (particularly at night). Anything that causes swelling inside the wrist can cause carpal tunnel syndrome, including repetitive hand movements, pregnancy and arthritis.

What is Your Carpal Tunnel?

Your carpal tunnel protects vital structures such as the median nerve, blood vessels and tendons as they pass to and from your hand. The palm side of your wrist has a band of strong ligaments (flexor retinaculum) that attach to the carpal (wrist) bones at either side. The rear of the tunnel is a curved compilation of the wrist bones.

What’s the Cause of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome symptoms begin when the pressure inside the tunnel becomes too high. This pressure results in your median nerve becoming compressed as it passes through the small tunnel.

The carpal tunnel pressure increase occurs when either of two things happens:

  • The tunnel space decreases when the wrist swells. This swelling may occur after a traumatic injury.
  • When the contents of the tunnel enlarge (median nerve, blood vessels and tendons).

Both of these situations increase the pressure on the nerve, leading to carpal tunnel symptoms.

Other Common Causes of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Most often, compression occurs in your neck but can occur anywhere along the nerve path as it travels to your hand. Frequently, the median nerve is compressed elsewhere along its route – not in the carpal tunnel – and replicates carpal tunnel symptoms. This entrapment predisposes the nerve to develop carpal tunnel symptoms.

How does this occur?

Healthy nerves have a supply of fluid called axoplasmic fluid, which provides the nerve with nutrients. Typically, a pressure of about 70 mmHg propels this fluid slowly along the length of the nerve. However, the fluid flow is interrupted if the nerve is slightly squashed (e.g. by a bulging neck disc). Your nerve will starve, and you may experience carpal tunnel symptoms.

It is essential to confirm the site of your nerve compression. Many patients over the years have had carpal tunnel surgery performed without benefit because the carpal tunnel symptoms originated from nerve compression elsewhere. This condition is known as “double crush syndrome”.

Potential Compression Sources

Your symptoms can originate from elsewhere along the median nerve. This source is frequently overlooked and could save you from unsuccessful surgery. Your lower cervical spine, especially C6, C7, C8 and T1, should be thoroughly examined by your physiotherapist. This paradigm is a “double crush syndrome”, and there is an increased likelihood of carpal tunnel syndrome in these patients. Kwon et al. (2006).

Abnormal Neurodynamics

Your nerves should freely travel along their pathways between your spine and your fingers. Any interference of their slide mobility could cause symptoms, e.g. scar tissue, tight muscles. Your physiotherapist can assess your neurodynamics for abnormalities. Tal-Akabi & Rushton (2000).

Hormonal Factors

Hormone imbalances can cause swelling of the hands and feet, as evidenced by the condition’s prevalence in middle-aged or pregnant women.

Gripping, Repetition and Micro vibration

Occupations associated with repetitive wrist flexion and extension activities, vibratory tools, and gripping have a high incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome.

What’re the Symptoms of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) sufferers will usually experience the following symptoms in their hand or fingers:

  • hand pain or aching
  • pins and needles
  • numbness esp at night of with wrist flexing
  • burning
  • weakness or cramping
  • perceived swelling

The symptoms are usually worse at night, and your grip will weaken as the condition progresses. Eventually, you will notice muscle atrophy of the thenar (thumb) muscles and loss of hand function or clumsiness.

Shaking the wrist may ease symptoms temporarily. Zhao & Burke (2008).

How is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Diagnosed?

Your physiotherapist or doctor will generally diagnose carpal tunnel syndrome based on your symptoms. They use various tests such as Phalen’s test, Tinel’s test or the wrist flexion/median nerve compression test that compress the carpal tunnel. It is also essential to thoroughly examine your lower neck and upper back joints, plus your nerve tissue mobility – neurodynamics.

Your doctor may refer you for nerve conduction studies or EMG studies to quantify if your electrical nerve impulses slow by compression of the carpal tunnel or further up the arm. Craig & Richardson (2011).

Ultrasound may reveal a median nerve enlargement. An X-ray may identify coexisting pathologies. MRI, CT scans are generally not required. Hobson-Webb & Padua (2009).

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Treatment

Rest & Patient Education

Resting from the aggravating cause is essential. Education and awareness about the symptoms and what positions or activities potentially cause carpal tunnel syndrome is necessary. Sim et al. (2011).

Night Wrist Splint

A nighttime wrist splint is beneficial to eliminate wrist bending and, therefore, carpal tunnel symptoms. Muller et al. (2004). Your physiotherapist may recommend a brace. A suitable carpal tunnel wrist splint will help you.


Physiotherapy is beneficial for most carpal tunnel sufferers, especially in mild to moderate cases.

Your physiotherapist will address:

  • Carpal bone mobilisation and flexor retinaculum stretching to open the carpal tunnel. Tal-Akabi & Rushton (2000).
  • Nerve and tendon gliding exercises to ensure full unrestricted nerve motion is available. McKeon & Hsieh (2008).
  • Muscle and soft tissue extensibility. Moraska (2008).
  • Cervicothoracic spine to correct any referral or double crush syndromes. Kwon et al. (2006).
  • Grip and pinch, thumb abduction and forearm strengthening in later phases. Pinar et al. (2005).
  • Extensive upper limb, wrist and hand ROM, strengthening and endurance exercises.
  • Posture, fine motor and hand dexterity exercises. Abd-Elkader et al. (2010).

Ultrasound Therapy, Acupuncture, Massage & Yoga

Ultrasound therapy may assist in carpal tunnel syndrome. Huisstede et al. (2010). Acupuncture may decrease carpal tunnel pain. Sim et al. (2011), Kumnerddee & Kaewtong (2010), Yang et al. (2011).

Targeted massage can assist grip strength in CTS sufferers. Moraska (2008).

Yoga focusing on upper body flexibility can improve grip strength quicker than wrist splints alone. Garfinkel et al. (1998).

Ergonomic Assessment

If the carpal tunnel has interrupted your work, then an ergonomic assessment of the workplace and work practices may be worthwhile to prevent a recurrence. You may require activity modification. Larson & Ellexson (2000).

See Online Ergonomic Assessment.

TENS Machine

A TENS machine (transcutaneous electrical muscle stimulation) may ease the pain associated with carpal tunnel syndrome. Kara et al. (2010). Discover more information about TENS machines here: Tens Machine

Carpal Tunnel Surgery

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) recommends non-surgical treatment initially. Keith et al. (2009).

Before you undertake carpal tunnel surgery, you must check all the other possible sources. As mentioned earlier, the resolution of carpal tunnel syndrome after surgery is often temporary or incomplete if the symptoms originate elsewhere. Generally, carpal surgery will occur after 6 to 12 months of conservative treatment, such as physiotherapy and wrist splints. However, surgery may be considered within a few months if neurological symptoms deteriorate quickly.

Even if your symptoms are relieved at the carpal tunnel – either with splints or with surgery – it may only be a temporary solution if there is another location where the nerve has “double crush syndrome”. Obviously, in these cases, treatment of the whole nerve path is crucial to alleviate symptoms.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Prognosis?

Mild to moderate sufferers of carpal tunnel syndrome have a favourable prognosis from conservative treatment. The best results occur within the first three months of treatment. Severe cases, especially those with thenar muscle atrophy, are more likely to require surgical release of the carpal tunnel. Shi & MacDermid (2011).

Chronic carpal tunnel syndrome can in neural fibrosis, resulting in permanent nerve damage that will not respond to conservative or surgical treatment. Boscheinen-Morrin & Conolly (2001).

For more specific advice, please consult your physiotherapist or doctor.

Acute Injury Signs

Acute Injury Management.

Here are some warning signs that you have an injury. While some injuries are immediately evident, others can creep up slowly and progressively get worse. If you don't pay attention to both types of injuries, chronic problems can develop.

For detailed information on specific injuries, check out the injury by body part section.

Don't Ignore these Injury Warning Signs

Joint Pain

Joint pain, particularly in the knee, ankle, elbow, and wrist joints, should never be ignored. Because these joints are not covered by muscle, pain here is rarely of muscular origin. Joint pain that lasts more than 48 hours requires a professional diagnosis.


If you can elicit pain at a specific point in a bone, muscle, or joint, you may have a significant injury by pressing your finger into it. If the same spot on the other side of the body does not produce the same pain, you should probably see your health professional.  


Nearly all sports or musculoskeletal injuries cause swelling. Swelling is usually quite obvious and can be seen, but occasionally you may feel as though something is swollen or "full" even though it looks normal. Swelling usually goes along with pain, redness and heat.

Reduced Range of Motion

If the swelling isn't obvious, you can usually find it by checking for a reduced range of motion in a joint. If there is significant swelling within a joint, you will lose range of motion. Compare one side of the body with the other to identify major differences. If there are any, you probably have an injury that needs attention.


Compare sides for weakness by performing the same task. One way to tell is to lift the same weight with the right and left sides and look at the result. Or try to place body weight on one leg and then the other. A difference in your ability to support your weight is another suggestion of an injury that requires attention.

Immediate Injury Treatment: Step-by-Step Guidelines

  • Stop the activity immediately.
  • Wrap the injured part in a compression bandage.
  • Apply ice to the injured part (use a bag of crushed ice or a bag of frozen vegetables).
  • Elevate the injured part to reduce swelling.
  • Consult your health practitioner for a proper diagnosis of any serious injury.
  • Rehabilitate your injury under professional guidance.
  • Seek a second opinion if you are not improving.