You’ve probably heard about carpal tunnel syndrome before. Between factory workers, office workers, fast food workers, athletes, musicians, artists, tailors, drivers, gamers—it seems like anyone who uses their wrist regularly throughout the day is at risk.
The carpal tunnel is a small passageway nestled between the bones and ligaments on the palm side of your hand. This passageway houses the median nerve, also informally called the “eye of the hand,” which is one of three major nerves that run through your arm and hand. The median nerve controls the sensation in and movement of nearly all of your fingers, including the thumb but excluding the pinky. Carpal tunnel syndrome, then, occurs when the median nerve becomes squeezed or otherwise irritated in the carpal tunnel. Carpal tunnel signs and symptoms include tingling, pain, and weakness throughout the hand and wrist.
Researchers aren’t completely sure what causes carpal tunnel syndrome, but it is prevalent enough that we know contributing risk factors. Typically, carpal tunnel syndrome isn’t a result of just one thing, but rather a combination of some of these factors:
- Workplace: As previously mentioned, carpal tunnel syndrome is more common in people who use their hands and wrists throughout the day. Jobs and activities that require repetitive and prolonged flexing of the wrist, especially when done in the cold, seem particularly harmful.
- Anatomy: Things like arthritis, wrist fractures, and wrist dislocation can deform the small bones in the wrist, causing compression on the carpal tunnel and median nerve. Also, some people just naturally have smaller carpal tunnels; people assigned female at birth, for example, tend to have a smaller carpal tunnel area overall.
- Certain conditions: Nerve-damaging conditions like diabetes, inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, and other conditions like thyroid disorders and kidney failure can also increase the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Obesity: Extra weight in the wrist area can cause compression on the carpal tunnel and median nerve.
- Pregnancy: During pregnancy (and menopause), fluid retention within the wrist, as well as the rest of the body, may increase and put pressure on the carpal tunnel. This is usually resolved on its own after pregnancy.
If any of these risk factors apply to you, we have some great tips on how you can help prevent carpal tunnel.
1. Be a Bit Gentler
Sometimes when we work with our hands, we’re too focused on our task to notice how hard we’ve started gripping. Perhaps you’ve made indentations in your finger from holding a pencil too tightly and scribbling down notes before. This overexertion can cause compression in the wrist, so it’s worth lightening your hold a little or investing in some ergonomic tools.
It’s also a good idea to stop every once in a while. Whether that’s to do some (opens in a new tab) or just take a break, resting your hands, or otherwise changing their position can help take some of the pressure off your wrist. So next time your grip is getting a little too firm or you’ve been at it for just a little too long, take that break—you deserve it, and so do your wrists.
2. Bundle Up
We mean this in two ways: staying warm, and wearing a wrist brace. When you’re cold, pain and stiffness tend to get worse, and with the weather cooling down, it’s probably time to dig up your old gloves or invest in a stylish new pair. A brace, meanwhile, helps by keeping your wrist in a neutral position. Some people find this strategy particularly helpful while sleeping: even if you know how to hold your wrist throughout the day and when to give it breaks, it’s a lot harder to get your wrist to cooperate with this when you’re asleep.
3. Make Some Small Changes
While definitely a small change, this one might be a bit tricky at first: switch between using your dominant hand to using your non-dominant hand from time to time. We don’t expect you to be ambidextrous, but switching between your hands and giving your muscles and wrists a break from repetitive tasks can be helpful. To get comfortable with it, try holding your morning coffee with your left hand, and from there, try out some of your normal repetitive tasks with your non-dominant hand.
There’s a good chance you’ve had someone tell you to watch your posture before, like your mother or your elementary school music teacher. Not only does good posture satisfy your mom’s wishes and make you a better singer, but having your shoulders and spine properly aligned can help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome. When your shoulders slump forwards, the muscles in your neck and shoulders shorten, causing issues with the nerves in your neck, which in turn can cause issues elsewhere in your body, including your wrist.
Moreover, your wrist has a posture of its own. We mentioned that wearing a brace can help keep your wrist in a “neutral” position; this means that your thumb is in line with your forearm and your wrist is bent back slightly, just as it would be if it were hanging at your side. Keeping this neutral position is an important factor in avoiding carpal tunnel syndrome. Next time you’re (opens in a new tab), keep your wrists off your desk and keyboard, hold your mouse straight, and keep that neutral position.
4. Make Some Small Changes
Now for some bigger lifestyle changes: losing weight and stopping smoking. As we mentioned earlier, obesity is a risk factor for carpal tunnel syndrome due to the added pressure. Obesity can also cause other health issues like diabetes, high blood pressure, and inflammatory conditions, all of which are also risk factors for carpal tunnel syndrome. Losing excess weight can feel like an insurmountable task, but it is all around good for your health, and with the right mindset and help from those around you (including your doctor), it can be done.
Stopping smoking is another big change that can feel insurmountable. Like losing weight, quitting smoking has myriad health benefits, but when it comes to carpal tunnel, it’s worth doing to increase blood flow. Nicotine, found in products like cigarettes, cigars, and vape juice, constrict blood vessels, limiting how much blood is able to get through. This restricted blood flow can cause nerve problems, including to the median nerve, causing carpal tunnel syndrome.
If All Else Fails, Make an Appointment with Dr. Rytel
If you need more information, or if you’re already suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms, it might be time to meet with a specialist like Dr. Michael Rytel who can show you exercises in person, introduce you to carpal tunnel pain treatments, and answer your questions.
Dr. Rytel is a board-certified orthopedic and sports medicine specialist who can help diagnose and treat your carpal tunnel pain. If you’re looking for a carpal tunnel doctor near you, Rytel Sports Medicine has two offices in the Pittsburgh area. Request an appointment online or call (412)-661-5500 to schedule an appointment today.