Carpal Tunnel FAQs

What is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when pressure is placed on the median nerve within the carpal tunnel. This is a small, narrow passageway located on the palm side of your hand just past the wrist.  The carpal tunnel has very tight and unforgiving boundaries of bones and a tough ligament. This tunnel also encloses many tendons that move your fingers, so there is not a lot of “extra” space; it is “jam packed.”

Normally, the nerve runs through the carpal tunnel without a problem. But anything that narrows the space, or causes the space to fill beyond its capacity, can cause the median nerve to become compressed, leading to a “pinched” nerve. This extra pressure on the nerve is similar to standing on a garden hose. The water stops flowing down the hose and it no longer accomplishes what it is supposed to do.

The median nerve provides sensation to the palm side of your thumb, index, and middle finger and half of the ring finger. It also provides muscle control around the base of your thumb and in several fingers. When the nerve is compressed – like the garden hose – it stops working correctly. Depending on how long the nerve has been compressed and how severe the compression is will determine how poorly the “garden hose” works. Severe cases can cause dense continuous numbness in the thumb, index, middle and half of the ring finger, and muscle weakness and atrophy which will affect your grip and coordination, and fine muscle control.
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What Does Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Feel Like?

The symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome might manifest differently from patient to patient. However, common experiences include:

  • Pain that radiates through the fingers, hand, wrist, and/or forearm, often described as “electric” or “shooting.”  This pain typically is in the thumb and index finger side of the hand.    
  • A tingling, “buzzing” or numb sensation through the fingers.
  • Weakness when grabbing, pinching, or holding onto objects.
  • Interrupted sleep from pain and other sensations. 

What Causes Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Anything that places consistent pressure on the median nerve can create symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. This can occur in different ways:

  • Past fractures or trauma to the wrist that can affect the shape of the carpal tunnel. Forms of arthritis can also have this effect.
  • Swelling of the wrist and soft tissue in the wrist due to conditions such obesity, diabetes, thyroid dysfunctions, and others.
  • Fluid retention from pregnancy or menopause.
  • Repetitive motions and overextensions of the wrist.
  • Ganglion cyst, tumors, and masses in the wrist are more unusual causes.

Sometimes, more than one factor can be at work to contribute to the syndrome. Not every case has just one fixed cause.

Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Linked to Computer Use?

While extended computer use can be linked to general hand pain, it is not fully clear whether mouse and/or keyboard use themselves are a major contributing factor to carpal tunnel syndrome. Nevertheless, it pays to practice proper hand posture while using a computer or similar device, and to reduce overextension of your wrists as much as possible.

Other workplace habits or items that might contribute to carpal tunnel syndrome include assembly line work that involves flexing the wrist repetitively or for extended periods of time, as well as extensive time holding tools that vibrate. Performing such work in cold environments may also be a factor

Eric H. Williams MD
Specializing in reconstructive surgery and pain relief in the Greater Baltimore area.