What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

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Carpal tunnel syndrome is a painful condition that affects the forearms and wrists, particularly in women and middle-aged people. It begins when the tissues of the carpal tunnel become inflamed. The carpal tunnel is the region formed by the wrist bones (or carpals) and a ligament that lies just beneath the skin. The carpal tunnel surrounds the median nerve—the nerve that runs through the forearm and wrist. When the carpal tunnel becomes inflamed, it presses against and irritates the median nerve.

In the early stages of carpal tunnel syndrome there is an on-and-off numbness and tingling in the thumb and first two fingers. As the condition worsens, the numbness and tingling become constant. Then the hand, and sometimes the whole arm, becomes painful.

Treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome involves wrist splinting, weight loss, and control of edema (swelling due to water retention). Treatments for arthritis may help also. For extreme cases of carpal tunnel syndrome there is a surgical procedure in which the ligament at the wrist is cut, thus relieving pressure on the nerve.

Those who work continuously with computer keyboards are particularly vulnerable to carpal tunnel syndrome. To minimize the risk of developing this problem, workers should type with their wrists straight, rather than tilted upward. It is best to place the keyboard at a position that's lower than a standard desktop.

Sources: Barnes-Svarney, Patricia. The New York Public Library Science Desk Reference, pp. Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Complete Home Medical Guide, p. 599; Williams, Robin. Jargon, p. 86.