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Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is a condition where a major nerve (median nerve) is compressed where it passes through a short tunnel at the wrist. CTS commonly affects women in middle age but can occur at any age in either sex. CTS can occur with pregnancy, diabetes, thyroid problems, rheumatoid arthritis and other less common conditions, but most sufferers have none of these. CTS may be associated with swelling in the tunnel which may be caused by inflammation of the tendons, a fracture of the wrist, wrist arthritis and other less common conditions. In most cases however, the cause is not identifiable.
The main symptom is altered feeling in the hand, affecting the thumb index, middle and ring fingers; it is unusual for the little finger to be involved. Many people describe the altered feeling as tingling. Tingling is often worse at night or first thing in the morning. It may be provoked by activities that involve gripping an object, for example a mobile telephone or newspaper, especially if the hand is elevated. In the early stages the symptoms of tingling intermittent and sensation will return to normal. If the condition worsens, the altered feeling may become continuous, with numbness in the fingers and thumb together with weakness and wasting of the muscles at the base of the thumb. Sufferers often described a feeling of clumsiness and drop objects easily. CTS may be associated with pain in the wrist and forearm.
In some cases, nerve conduction tests are needed to confirm the diagnosis. Blood tests and x-rays are sometimes required.
Non-surgical treatments include the use of splints, especially at night, and an injection into the carpal tunnel. CTS occurring in pregnancy often resolves after the baby is born.
Surgery is frequently required. This can be performed under local anaesthetic as an outpatient procedure. The operation involves opening the roof of the tunnel to reduce the pressure on the nerve. In an alternative keyhole method (endoscopic release) the roof is opened with instruments inserted through one small incision at the wrist. This technique usually requires general anaesthesia as a day case. The outcomes of the two techniques are similar, but recovery times can be different, your surgeon can discuss the most appropriate method.
The outcome is usually a satisfactory resolution of the symptoms. Night pain and tingling usually disappear within a few days. In severe cases, improvement of constant numbness and muscle weakness may be slow or incomplete. It generally takes about three months to regain full strength and a fully comfortable scar.