Tingles in the fingers
The facts regarding carpal tunnel syndrome
If you’ve walked away from the computer with a cramp in your hand, chances are you’ve thought about carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), a condition that is often associated with too much time spent working with a keyboard and mouse. What may surprise you is that there is no scientific evidence to support the theory that office work—using the computer, signing too many checks, crunching numbers on a calculator (or an abacus, if you are old school)—contributes to carpal tunnel syndrome. There are often other conditions that are confused with CTS, such as tendonitis, bursitis, and writer’s cramp, all which present similar symptoms.
The simplest way to explain what the carpal tunnel is by imagining exactly that: a tunnel that is located at the palm side of the wrist. Under this tunnel is the median nerve, which runs from the forearm to the palm, and the job of this nerve is to control the sensations in the thumb and four fingers. (This is why your pinky rarely aches when the rest of your fingers do.) There are also tendons that run under the carpal tunnel, responsible for controlling the fingers. If the median nerve becomes compressed, the fingers and thumb may ache or become numb. This sensation may radiate up the arm, following the path of the median nerve.
There are many causes of carpal tunnel syndrome, some surprising. Some people just have more narrow carpal tunnels than others, making them prone to CTS. Injury to the wrist can cause swelling of the tendons, directly squeezing the median nerve. Even an overactive pituitary gland can cause CTS. Other factors include swelling from pregnancy, chronic illnesses that damage the nerves, and working for long periods of time with vibrating tools, such as on a factory assembly line. There is very little evidence to prove that computer use has anything at all to do with CTS.
Initially the discomfort of carpal tunnel syndrome can be minimized with rest and cold packs. For pain that persists, options include wrist splinting, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (Ibuprofen) and corticosteroid (Cortisone) shots. If symptoms are severe and cannot be managed non-invasively, carpal tunnel surgery is the final option. Either an open surgery or endoscopic surgery is performed to cut the ligament that is pressing down on the median nerve. The ligament will grow back after surgery, leaving more room for the nerve than there was before.
- Tendinitis: inflammation of a tendon
- Bursitis: inflammation of the bursae, fluid-filled pads located between the tendons and bones
- Writer’s cramp: spasm or cramp in the hand or fingers
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