Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

If wrist pain wakes you at night or you feel pins and needles in your hands when you drive, you may have this disorder. Though considered a condition of modern times, carpal tunnel syndrome has in fact been recognised since the 1880s.

What is it?

The bones and ligaments in the wrist (medically known as the carpus, from the Greek karpos) form a pathway called the carpal tunnel. Here the median nerve, which controls movement and feeling in most of the hand, and the tendons that connect the arm muscles and the hand muscles pass from the forearm into the hand. The tunnel can be narrowed by swelling of ligaments or tendons, bone dislocation, bone spurs or fluid retention. This narrowing may compress the median nerve, causing the pain, numbness and weakness characteristic of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Symptoms may develop gradually or suddenly, and they tend to be most painful at night. (Indeed, 95% of sufferers report being awakened by pain.) Symptoms may last for a few days and disappear without treatment or persist for months and require medical intervention.

What causes it?

Carpal tunnel syndrome is usually a stress injury induced by prolonged, repeated movements of the hands or fingers. Overuse of the hands on the job (typing at a computer, working on an assembly line) or during leisure activities (knitting, playing musical activities) can inflame the tendons or ligaments, causing them to swell and compress the median nerve.

Changes in hormonal balance during pregnancy, while taking birth control pills, or during menopause may also bring on or worsen carpal tunnel symptoms. Underlying disease (diabetes, hypothyroidism, Raynaud’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis) or trauma to the wrist may result in carpal tunnel syndrome as well. Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs three times more often in women than it does in men and is particularly common in overweight women between the ages of 30 and 60.

What are the symptoms?

  • Numbness or tingling in the thumb and the first three fingers.
  • Shooting pains in the wrist and forearm, which may radiate into the shoulder and neck.
  • Weakness in the hand; difficulty in picking up and holding objects.
  • A sensation that the fingers are swollen when no swelling is visible.

Are there any natural therapies?

Several studies suggest that a deficiency of vitamin B6 can make you susceptible to the numbness and pain of carpal tunnel syndrome. This vitamin is important in maintaining healthy nerve tissue, relieving inflammation and improving circulation. It also may increase the brain’s production of the nerve chemical GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which helps to control pain sensations. If you don’t notice any improvement after taking vitamin B6 for three weeks, switch to pyridoxal-5 phosphate (P-5-P), a form of the vitamin that the body eventually produces as it breaks down vitamin B6. Some people find this form works better for them.

Bromelain, a powerful anti-inflammatory enzyme found in pineapples, is also very effective in treating the inflammation and any resulting pain. The combination of bromelain and vitamin B6 works better than either supplement alone. Turmeric, a member of the ginger family, is also useful. When turmeric and bromelain are taken together, then enhance each other’s anti-inflammatory properties and may helps to relieve the pain of carpal tunnel syndrome. Although turmeric is safe to use over the long term, cut the dose in half once your symptoms subside. (This herb can be expensive.)

What else can I do?

  • Take frequent breaks when performing any repetitive hand activity, such as typing, knitting or playing an instrument. Stop at least once an hour to flex your fingers and shake your hands.
  • Apply ice to your wrists when pain strikes. Use a flexible ice pack – or a bag of frozen peas – and put it on for 10 minutes every hour to ease the pain and reduce the inflammation.
  • Elevate your wrists with a pillow when you lie down.

Did you know?

Salt promotes water retention, which can contribute to swelling and may aggravate the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. Try reducing the amount of salt in your diet and see if it helps.