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Carpal Tunnel is a medical condition that affects the median nerve and causes extreme discomfort in the wrist and hands. Its causes aren’t always clear—often realized to be a combination of things—but there are straightforward steps to treating it. The first step in diagnosing carpal tunnel syndrome is to rule out similar conditions such as arthritis, cubital tunnel syndrome, and even radial tunnel. Knowing how to spot the symptoms can help better understand the best path forward.

Symptoms of Carpal Tunnel

Carpal tunnel starts mildly in most cases. It’s characterized by frequent burning, numbness, and sometimes even sensations of itching all focused primarily in the wrist, thumb, index, and middle fingers. Those suffering from advanced cases of carpal tunnel often report their fingers feeling “useless.” If left untreated, Carpal Tunnel syndrome can cause muscle loss and permanent nerve damage. One of the tell-tale symptoms is the isolation of pain and numbness to the thumb, index, middle fingers and wrist (R).

Similar Conditions

While assessing your hand, wrist, or joint pain you may find that Carpal Tunnel syndrome isn’t the best fit. Knowing the specifics of your health issues can help treat the root causes of your pain more effectively. For example, wrist injuries such as sprains may present with issues similar to carpal tunnel.

In such cases, you’ll find certain wrist braces are designed for maximum mobility of other fingers such as the thumb. These wouldn’t be ideal for Carpal Tunnel since limiting the movement of all affected digits would be ideal. Here are some conditions that are similar to carpal tunnel, but should be treated differently.

Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

This condition is characterized by increased pressure on the Ulnar nerve. This nerve is responsible for the brief pain and/or numbness one feels when bumping their funny bone. It runs from the shoulder to the outer side of the wrist. Symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome are similar to carpal tunnel but isolated to the pinkie and ring fingers.

This condition, sometimes also referred to as Ulnar Tunnel Syndrome develops from leaning on your elbows or bending your elbows for extended periods of time. If you type at a keyboard or talk on the phone all day you may be at higher risk for issues with your Ulnar nerve.

Radial Tunnel Syndrome

The radial nerve runs by the bones and muscles in our arms and elbows. This syndrome is characterized by forearm-centric pain that is sharp and presents when bending the hand or wrist. Radial nerve pain is generally restricted to the forearm but, in more advanced cases, may spread to surrounding areas.

Radial tunnel syndrome doesn’t cause the numbness and tingling sensations associated with Carpal Tunnel or Radial Tunnel syndromes. Treatments generally include wearing elbow pads, splinting during sleep, and behavioral modification to avoid physical activities that make it worse. In more advanced cases, nerve relocation surgery may be advisable.

Cervical Radiculopathy

Cervical root nerves start from areas in the cervical spine and extend outward into different parts of our bodies. These nerves are tasked with regulating the function of our shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers. In addition, cervical nerves help to provide us the sensation of touch. Inflammation of these nerves can cause symptoms similar to carpal tunnel syndrome that wouldn’t respond to carpal tunnel specific treatments.

Cervical radiculopathy is commonly caused by bone spurs or herniated discs that cause increased pressure and inflammation on the cervical spine region. As with other conditions mentioned here, the exact causes aren’t always clear. If you experience a worsening of symptoms when moving your head, neck, or shoulders you may be dealing with this rather than Carpal Tunnel. Treatments include stretches, behavioral modification, soft tissue massage, and lowering inflammation (R).

Arthritis

Arthritis is a medical condition primarily affecting the joints. This condition is characterized by inflammation around the affected areas and the pain that follows. There are many types of arthritis and their symptoms, causes, and treatments all vary. It’s important to note that while Arthritis can sometimes be confused for carpal tunnel syndrome—it can sometimes also cause it.

Symptoms of arthritis vary depending on the specific type. However, most forms of this disease include pain, swelling of joints, tenderness, and reduced range-of-motion. It can’t be stressed enough that you should be talking with a licensed professional to help better assess your risk factors and diagnosis if you suspect arthritis.

Final Thoughts

Carpal Tunnel syndrome is probably the best-known term associated with hand pain. It’s a common diagnosis made for hand pain but easily confused with similar medical conditions. It’s important to speak with a specialist to better understand the exact causes of your hand pain. This will help determine the best approach for treatment, help save you money by avoiding unnecessary treatments, and help reduce the risk of further damage. For the majority of cases, treatments include avoiding problematic physical activity for a short time, wearing braces, and taking medications or supplements to lower inflammation.

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