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Can you treat carpal tunnel with occupational therapy?

Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital January 18, 2023 Wellness

You try to send a text but there goes that pain in your hand again. You open your laptop to draft an email and feel numbness or tingling up your arm. These things might feel normal, but if you've been ignoring these symptoms for a while, it's possible you're experiencing something more serious than everyday pain.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition that can be caused by pinched nerves in your wrist. The numbness and tingling sensations are triggered when your hand remains in an upright or gripping position for a long period of time.

When it comes to hand, wrist or arm pain from carpal tunnel syndrome, you don't have to just power through it. Occupational therapy can provide customized interventions to help you perform your daily activities without pain.

Beth McNeal OTR/L, CHT, is an occupational therapist (OT) and certified hand therapist at Main Line Health. She evaluates and treats patients as well as establishes personalized care plans for patients with injuries to the hand, wrist and elbow.

"My day-to-day also involves custom splinting, communicating with physicians about patient statuses, educating patients about their diagnoses, developing modified approaches to their daily roles, wound care and providing home exercise programs," says McNeal.

Here's a look at what causes carpal tunnel, how to know if you have it and how occupational therapists can help.

What causes carpal tunnel syndrome?

The carpal tunnel, located in your inner wrist, is what shelters the main nerve connected to your hand and the nine tendons that allow you to bend your fingers. When that passageway is compressed, the nerve sends the feeling of numbness and tingling. Over time, if not treated, your hand will lose coordination and strength. That's called carpal tunnel syndrome.

There are several factors that contribute to carpal tunnel syndrome. Anything that applies pressure to the median nerve, which allows you to have feeling in your thumb, index, middle and part of your ring fingers, can cause carpal tunnel syndrome.

Factors that can contribute to carpal tunnel syndrome include:

  • Repetitive hand and wrist movements or activities
  • Certain underlying health problems, including osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis
  • Your wrist anatomy
  • Swelling caused by trauma or injury to your wrist
  • Fluid retention that can occur during menopause or pregnancy

Repetitive activities like painting and driving can trigger carpal tunnel syndrome. As much as you try to ignore the symptoms, they'll only get worse.

How do you know if you have carpal tunnel syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome is most common in adults between the ages of 30 and 60. Other people at risk of developing carpal tunnel tend to be those with diabetes or metabolic disorders because their nerves are more easily compromised.

Compared to men, women are 3 times more likely to have carpal tunnel symptoms.

The most common carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms are tingling, numbness and pain in the hand and wrist.

"These symptoms are caused by compression on the median nerve entering the hand through the wrist," says McNeal.

Other symptoms include:

  • Pain that moves up your arm
  • Weakness or pain in your hands
  • Difficulty gripping items
  • Numbness or tingling feeling in the thumb, index, middle and ring fingers
  • Shock-like sensations along your thumb, index, middle and ring fingers

If you're experiencing any of these symptoms, chances are you've caught carpal tunnel early. But catching it early is only the first step.

How can occupational therapy help carpal tunnel?

If you have carpal tunnel, you know how frustrating and painful it can be to go about your daily routine. However, it can also cause long-term damage.

"Many people feel they can try to live with the tingling and pain or decreased strength and coordination to avoid surgery, hoping it will resolve on its own," says McNeal. "If left untreated, the muscles of the hand start to waste away (called atrophy) and damage becomes irreversible."

This long-term compression can cause enough damage that you're unable to oppose your thumb—a position that helps you make a "C" shape with your hand.

"This is important for grasping objects. It's a highly skilled motion that distinguishes humans from apes," says McNeal.

Before carpal tunnel surgery, occupational therapists like McNeal can fit patients with custom splints to minimize symptoms. After surgery, they can also help with:

  • Range of motion challenges
  • Coordination
  • Strength issues
  • Scar management
  • Desensitization (loss of feeling)
  • Edema (swelling) control
  • Performing daily activities

Getting the right treatment for carpal tunnel

Carpal tunnel symptoms tend to be shrugged off as everyday, unavoidable pain. But with the right treatment plan, not only can you ease symptoms, but you can also prevent long-term damage.

With the help of a skilled care team, including an occupational therapist, you can get back to your daily routine pain-free.

"Occupational therapy focuses on the meaningful tasks and recreational activities we perform on a daily basis," says McNeal. "It's an invaluable element to restoring function once diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome."

Next steps:

Make an appointment with Beth McNeal OTR/L, CHT
Learn more about carpal tunnel care at Main Line Health
Learn more about occupational therapy at Main Line Health