Natural Healing: How to Treat Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

| September/October 2001

  • Although it is most often associated with computer use, carpal tunnel syndrome can strike anyone who performs repetitive hand motions.

Chances are your checker at the grocery store wears a big, clunky wrist splint. If her arm is entombed in a Velcro-fastened binding extending from fingers to elbow, she’s got carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). Not exactly velvet evening gloves, but these wrist wraps are the fashion statement of the twenty-first century.

CTS is a common, disabling condition. Most often associated with computer use, it can strike just about anyone who performs repetitive hand motions. CTS afflicts women more often than men. Pregnancy, rheumatoid arthritis, and diabetes are risk factors. This crippler is caused by compression of the median nerve, a major nerve supplying the arm and hand. This nerve generates sensation and movement in the hand. On its way through the wrist, the nerve navigates through a passage in the wrist called the carpal tunnel.

Repetitive stress

CTS is the most common type of repetitive stress injury. Continuous, repetitive wrist motion may irritate the ligaments and tendons encased in the tunnel, causing these structures to swell, squeezing the median nerve. Tingling and numbness in the thumb, index finger, middle finger, and half of the ring finger ensues. The individual’s hand will feel as if it has “gone to sleep.” The pain and discomfort of CTS is so severe that it often wakes people in the night. It can even eventually make it hard to grasp small objects. Without treatment, CTS may eventually manifest as permanent weakness, loss of sensation, or even thumb and finger paralysis.

CTS is a signal that the body is experiencing more strain than it was designed to handle. Activities that cause a person to repeatedly bend the wrist inward toward the forearm can increase the risk of CTS. Jobs that call for repeated strong wrist motions carry a comparatively high risk of CTS. Repetitive motion injuries are more frequent among office workers who do a lot of typing, those working at computers or cash registers, factory machine operators, and various musicians. Job injuries from repetitive stress, heavy lifting, and related conditions befall about 1 million workers each year and incur costs of $54 billion, according to a National Academy of Sciences report.

CTS is a noteworthy cause of missed workdays due to pain, causing an estimated 460,000 employee work-related injuries per year. Because most occurrences of CTS are job-related, paying attention to proper ergonomics is essential—repositioning the computer keyboard and taking more breaks, for example.

Treating carpal tunnel

The first step in conventional CTS treatment is splints, which support the wrist and prevent it from flexing inward, exaggerating nerve compression. Some people wear such splints at night whereas others need to wear the splints all day, especially while working. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are often used to decrease pain and swelling. In advanced CTS, steroids are injected into the wrist. The most serious cases of CTS may require surgery, cutting the ligament that crosses the wrist, to decrease the nerve compression.

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