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What You Might Not Know about Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

An estimated 12 million Americans suffer from the painful nerve disorder of carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). We’ve heard the term so much that it might start to seem as if CTS is simply something you should live with. But investigators are working on new ways to prevent and cure it.

The carpal tunnel, located at the base of the hand, is a narrow passageway of ligament and bones that houses the median nerve, which runs from the forearm into the palm of the hand. When tendons are irritated nerves can become compressed, causing numbness and pain in the wrist, palm and first three fingers of the hand.

Women, who are three times likelier to have CTS than men, are particularly susceptible between the ages of 45 and 55, perhaps because their carpal tunnel is narrower. But the risk in both males and females increases with age.

Here’s what you might not know about the disorder: Although it’s commonly believed that CTS is caused almost exclusively by long periods of typing or working at a computer, that’s not the case.

In fact, a 2001 study by the Mayo Clinic found heavy computer use did not increase the risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome, but that was before the prevalence of texting and when heavy computer use was considered up to seven hours a day. Now we use keyboards from the moment we wake up until we close our eyes to sleep.

Other kinds of repetitive movement, like that of assembly-line workers, also lead to CTS. But there are a number of other causes as well, including genetic factors, hormonal changes, diabetes, lupus, obesity , hypothyroidism and rheumatoid arthritis.

Additionally, people can confuse symptoms of bursitis and tendonitis with CTS. That’s why it’s important to see a doctor for diagnosis, no matter what you think the condition or cause is.

A CTS diagnosis can be made via tests as simple as pressing on the patient’s median nerve and analyzing the reaction. A physician may also use electrodiagnostic tests, in which nerve reactions are monitored by electrodes. (Of course, if there is an underlying condition like rheumatoid arthritis, it’s essential that that be treated first.)

Beginning CTS treatment usually involves resting the hand by wearing a splint and reducing the swelling that’s causing compression with anti-inflammatory medicines and icing. Physical therapists may advise stretching and strengthening exercises. Early treatment is important; for advanced cases, discuss surgery as an option with your doctor. An operation is generally successful, but involves a long recovery period.

Alternative therapies can help. Yoga has been shown to reduce pain and improve grip strength by strengthening flexor muscles of the forearm. Acupuncture has also proven effective, and massage tcan help release pain by long strokes up the forearm, gentle range of motion exercises for the wrist, and extending fingers, hand, wrist and elbow to stretch the flexors.

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