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  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: What it is and what to do if you have it

Published on August 03, 2012

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: What it is and what to do if you have it

SIOUX FALLS (Aug. 1, 2012) - If you have pain, numbness or tingling in your fingers, hand, wrist and forearm, or if your hands feel weak or clumsy, you may be suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome.

“This is a very common condition that is estimated to affect approximately 3 percent of people at some point in their lifetime,” said Dr. Erik Peterson, orthopedic specialist and surgeon with CORE Orthopedics Avera Medical Group. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a disorder of the median nerve that results from excess pressure in the tunnel through which the nerve travels from the wrist to hand.

Sufferers may find it difficult to button clothing, or pick up small objects like pins or paperclips. Often, the small finger on the hand is spared from these unwelcome sensations. Symptoms are made worse by activities that may place the wrist or fingers in an abnormal position for long periods of time, for example, driving, reading a newspaper, sleeping or repetitious activities like typing.

One frequent cause of carpal tunnel syndrome is repetitive use of the hands or wrists, for example, typing or use of power tools. “Workers in the meat packing industry have the highest risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome – 15 percent – because of the repetition involved in their work,” Dr. Peterson said. This repetitive use results in swelling in the tendons which compress the nerve. “The tendons share space with the nerve in the carpal canal and there is no room for swelling in the rigid carpal tunnel,” Dr. Peterson explained.

In other cases, the cause is unknown. Likelihood increases with age, as carpal tunnel syndrome typically occurs in the 40s, 50s and beyond. Women are three times more at risk than men. “Women may be at higher risk because they have a smaller passageway for the nerve in the wrist,” Dr. Peterson said. In addition, hormonal shifts are known to play a role, so carpal tunnel syndrome may show up during pregnancy. “In this case, symptoms virtually always resolve after birth,” Dr. Peterson said.

Being diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome doesn’t always mean you need surgery, Dr. Peterson said. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons has identified these non-surgical treatments as being beneficial: steroid injection and oral steroids, splinting the wrist at night, and ultrasound therapy.

“Generally, surgery is recommended when non-surgical treatments fail. It is generally accepted that surgery should be considered as first-line treatment if nerve compression is so severe that there is muscle wasting in the hand or severe symptoms,” Dr. Peterson said.

Surgery is very minimally invasive. It usually takes less than 15 minutes and is performed on an outpatient basis. Recovery is generally less than six weeks, but symptom relief is usually immediate.

Prevention of carpal tunnel syndrome is not always possible, but people who have high-repetition jobs or activities can work on their technique or environment to reduce their risk. Occupational therapists can assist with work station modifications such as an ergonomic keyboard and mouse, and setting proper desk and chair height.

For more information, go to or go to Dr. Peterson’s personal website at or email