Lately, I have noticed pain in my right thumb and wrist. Because I use a computer so often, I am concerned that it could be carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). Osteoarthritis could be another cause, but thankfully, there is relief for both. The median nerve provides feeling and movement to the “thumb side” of the hand (the palm, thumb, index finger, middle finger, and thumb side of the ring finger).The area in your wrist where the nerve enters the hand is called the carpal tunnel. This tunnel is normally narrow, so any swelling can pinch the nerve and cause pain, numbness, tingling or weakness. This is called carpal tunnel syndrome.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is common in people who perform repetitive motions of the hand and wrist. Typing on a computer keyboard is probably the most common cause of carpal tunnel. The condition occurs most often in people 30 to 60 years old, and is more common in women than men.
Other causes include:
- Assembly line work
- Use of tools (especially hand tools or tools that vibrate)
- Sports such as racquetball or handball
- Playing some musical instruments
- Numbness or tingling in the thumb and next two or three fingers of one or both hands
- Numbness or tingling of the palm of the hand
- Pain extending to the elbow
- Pain in wrist or hand in one or both hands
- Problems with fine finger movements (coordination) in one or both hands
- Wasting away of the muscle under the thumb (in advanced or long-term cases)
- Weak grip or difficulty carrying bags (a common complaint)
- Weakness in one or both hands
- Pain in thumb when trying to open a jar or door.
Don’t hesitate to consult with your doctor, if you have any of the above symptoms. The doctor may find:
- Numbness in the palm, thumb, index finger, middle finger, and thumb side of the ring finger
- Weak hand grip
- Tapping over the median nerve at the wrist may cause pain to shoot from the wrist to the hand (this is called Tinel’s sign)
- Bending the wrist forward all the way for 60 seconds will usually result in numbness, tingling, or weakness (this is called Phalen’s test)
CTS symptoms may last beyond six months, but can be surgically relieved. This procedure will release the pressure on the median nerve. With older adults (me), osteoarthritis happens when the cartilage padding your finger and hand joints begin to wear away. There are many home treatments. Your physician may give you certain exercises that will help to lessen your hand pain. Try hot or cold applications to ease pain, or splinting your thumb or wrist to give it a rest. Ibuprofen, naproxen or aspirin can all help to reduce the swelling of arthritis. A cortisone shot will give longer-term relief. Try to keep your joints active, before CTS or osteoarthritis “get a grip” on you!
Sources: American Academy of Family Physicians, American Society for Surgery of the Hand; National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, AARP/Strive.