Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is the name for a group of problems that includes swelling, pain, tingling, and loss of strength in your wrist and hand. Women are three times more likely to have CTS than men.
CTS is the name for a group of problems that includes swelling, pain, tingling, and loss of strength in your wrist and hand. Your wrist is made of small bones that form a narrow groove or carpal tunnel. Tendons and a nerve called the median nerve must pass through this tunnel from your forearm into your hand. The median nerve controls the feelings and sensations in the palm side of your thumb and fingers. Sometimes swelling and irritation of the tendons can put pressure on the wrist nerve, causing the symptoms of CTS. A person's dominant hand is the one that is usually affected. However, nearly half of CTS sufferers have symptoms in both hands.
CTS has become more common in the U.S. and is quite costly in terms of time lost from work and expensive medical treatment. The U.S. Department of Labor reported that in 2015 the average number of missed days of work due to CTS was 28 days.
Typically, CTS begins slowly with feelings of burning, tingling, and numbness in the wrist and hand. The areas most affected are the thumb, index and middle fingers. At first, symptoms may happen more often at night. Many CTS sufferers do not make the connection between a daytime activity that might be causing the CTS and the delayed symptoms. Also, many people sleep with their wrist bent, which may cause more pain and symptoms at night. As CTS gets worse, the tingling may be felt during the daytime too, along with pain moving from the wrist to your arm or down to your fingers. Pain is usually felt more on the palm side of the hand.
Another symptom of CTS is weakness of the hands that gets worse over time. Some people with CTS find it difficult to grasp an object, make a fist, or hold onto something small. The fingers may even feel like they are swollen even though they are not. Over time, this feeling will usually happen more often.
If left untreated, those with CTS can have a loss of feeling in some fingers and permanent weakness of the thumb. Thumb muscles can actually waste away over time. Eventually, CTS sufferers may have trouble telling the difference between hot and cold temperatures by touch.
Women are three times more likely to have CTS than men. Although there is limited research on why this is the case, scientists have several ideas. It may be that the wrist bones are naturally smaller in most women, creating a tighter space through which the nerves and tendons must pass. Other researchers are looking at genetic links that make it more likely for women to have musculoskeletal injuries such as CTS. Women also deal with strong hormonal changes during pregnancy and menopause that make them more likely to suffer from CTS. Generally, women are at higher risk of CTS between the ages of 45 and 54. Then, the risk increases for both men and women as they age.
There are other factors that can cause CTS, including certain health problems and, in some cases, the cause is unknown.
These are some of the risk factors that might increase your chances of developing CTS:
Also, smokers with CTS usually have worse symptoms and recover more slowly than nonsmokers.
It is important to be treated by a doctor for CTS in order to avoid permanent damage to the wrist nerve and muscles of the hand and thumb. Underlying causes, such as diabetes or a thyroid problem, should be addressed first. Left untreated, CTS can cause nerve damage that leads to loss of feeling and hand strength. Over time, the muscles of the thumb can become weak and damaged. You can even lose the ability to feel hot and cold by touch. Permanent injury occurs in about 1 percent of those with CTS.
CTS is much easier to treat early on. Most CTS patients get better after first-step treatments and the following tips for protecting the wrist. Treatments for CTS include the following:
Current research is focused on figuring out what causes CTS and how to prevent it. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) support research on work-related factors that may cause CTS. Scientists are also researching better ways to detect and treat CTS, including alternative treatments such as acupuncture.
The following steps can help to prevent CTS:
For more information about carpal tunnel syndrome, call the OWH Helpline at 800-994-9662 or contact the following organizations:
The Office on Women's Health is grateful for the additional reviews by:
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Page last updated: April 28, 2017.
Content last reviewed: July 16, 2012.