There are over seven trillion nerves in your body. Each nerve has a special function, and helps guide our unconscious activities — from breathing to waking up and blinking — and they don’t stop there.
Nerves’ cord-like structures provide a pathway for conducting electrical impulses throughout the body, relaying information from one side to the other. However, nerves’ hyper-sensitive nature makes them extremely important to get checked out by a doctor, especially when you notice something isn’t right.
With carpal tunnel syndrome, your median nerve — which runs through the middle of your hand — becomes compressed, leading to pain, tingling, burning or numbness in the wrist, hands and fingers. If you don’t seek treatment early on, you risk losing function in your hand.
Read below to find out more about carpal tunnel syndrome, and your treatment options.
What is carpal tunnel syndrome?
The median nerve is the softest nerve within the carpal tunnel of your hand and wrist. This means that it is highly susceptible to compression.
When the median nerve is gradually compressed by a lack of space in your hand — due to inflammation from tumors, arthritis, tendonitis and overuse — it becomes squished against the firm roof of the tunnel.
If the median nerve continues to undergo such strong compression, it can lead to hand and wrist pain, followed by weakness, numbness, and loss of dexterity.
What are the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome?
While symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome vary on a case by case basis, typical symptoms are as follows:
- Tingling: This signature symptom of carpal tunnel syndrome is characterized by a tingling, pins and needles-like feeling in your hand — specifically your ring, middle and index fingers. In more severe cases, this tingling sensation can make way to a more electric feeling that travels from your wrist up to your arm.
- Numbness: As your median nerve directly impacts your thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers, the gradual advancement of carpal tunnel syndrome can cause numbness and even loss of feeling in the wrist, hand or fingers.
- Weakness: As carpal tunnel syndrome advances and worsens, you may notice your grip strength is waning, causing weakness. Typically, this means tending to drop objects suddenly without a clear grip, and it also affects your handwriting.
- Pain: The progression of carpal tunnel syndrome eventually brings about potentially severe pain, even in the early stages. In some cases, pain can travel up through your arms to the shoulders, and even wake you from sleep. When you reach this stage, it is imperative that you seek treatment as soon as possible, as further advancement could lead to debilitating outcomes.
According to Dr. Daniel Penello, a hand & wrist surgeon at Alexander Orthopaedics, “The hand is an area with many nerve endings. Nerves don’t heal like bones or tissue, so it’s important to seek treatment at any stage of carpal tunnel syndrome. If left untreated, most of the hand will lose sensation and grip strength will be lost permanently.”
How is carpal tunnel syndrome diagnosed?
If you’re experiencing symptoms of carpal tunnel, we highly suggest scheduling an appointment with your doctor.
During your visit, they’ll likely start by asking about your risk factors and symptoms, followed by a physical examination to detect medial nerve compression.
Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your doctor may also recommend additional tests like X-rays, MRIs, electromyography, or nerve conduction studies. This will help determine the best method of treatment.
What are the treatment options for carpal tunnel syndrome?
For symptoms that are mild or intermittent, your doctor will likely recommend conservative treatment, including:
- Modified activity
- Anti-inflammatory medication
- Roll-on pain relief
- Local corticosteroid injections
- Treating your risk factors (i.e. arthritis)
- Physical therapy
- Wearing a splint designed for carpal tunnel
If debilitating symptoms persist, your doctor will likely recommend carpal tunnel surgery to relieve compression from the median nerve.
What happens in carpal tunnel surgery?
In a surgical procedure to treat carpal tunnel syndrome, patients typically receive some form of anesthesia — whether local (numbing) or general (sleep-inducing) — due to the nature of the incision being made.
Traditionally, surgeons will make an incision directly into the medial nerve to release pressure. At Alexander Orthopaedics, however, we use a very different approach.
Rather than making a large incision right through the middle of the hand — which could cause infection and further postoperative complications, we make a smaller incision into the wrist. This minimally invasive incision benefits patients in many ways, according to Dr. Penello.
“You use your hands every day. Having an incision that’s a quarter of the size of the original decreases the level of pain, and leads to quicker return to normal hand function and even to work.”
How long does it take to recover from carpal tunnel surgery?
Depending on the state of your median nerve before undergoing carpal tunnel surgery, healing could take anywhere from several weeks to several months.
Typically, you will receive a wrist splint that reduces pressure within the carpal tunnel, decreasing overall nerve compression.
What is post-operative pain like?
While this varies from patient to patient, patients are more likely to find discomfort and pain at their incision site, rather than the median nerve itself.
While numbness, tingling, and pain are all byproducts of carpal tunnel surgery, you can expect these sensations to taper off during the healing process. Be sure to speak with your doctor about the nature of your surgery, and assess what medications will help with any pain.
Is carpal tunnel surgery considered major surgery?
While carpal tunnel surgery is traditionally conducted as an outpatient procedure, the nature of the incisions — and the risk of infection — categorize it as a major surgery. It is important to discuss a plan with your doctor and physical therapist following postoperative healing and activities.
While you may notice an immediate improvement in symptoms following surgery, it is important to adhere to this recovery plan and avoid placing any unnecessary pressure on your hand and wrist — whether that be excessive typing or strenuous exercise.
Enjoy rapid recovery with Alexander Orthopaedics’ Outpatient Advantage
From diagnosis to treatment and throughout your recovery period, we are committed to your health, well-being and individual needs.
With our expert surgical techniques, an outpatient carpal tunnel relief procedure can help improve your quality of life and help you heal, faster.
Our outpatient orthopedic surgery centers and expert surgeons provide the care you need before, during, and after surgery.