Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) is the name for a group of problems that includes swelling, pain, tingling, and loss of strength in your wrist and hand. Your wrist is made of small bones that form a narrow groove or carpal tunnel. Tendons and a nerve called the median nerve must pass through this tunnel from your forearm into your hand. The median nerve controls the feelings and sensations in the palm side of your thumb and fingers. Sometimes swelling and irritation of the tendons can put pressure on the wrist nerve causing the symptoms of CTS. A person’s dominant hand is the one that is usually affected. However, nearly half of CTS sufferers have symptoms in both hands.
Women are three times more likely to have CTS than men. Although there is limited research on why this is the case, scientists have several ideas. It may be that the wrist bones are naturally smaller in most women, creating a tighter space through which the nerves and tendons must pass. Other researchers are looking at genetic links that make it more likely for women to have musculoskeletal injuries such as CTS. Women also deal with strong hormonal changes during pregnancy and menopause that make them more likely to suffer from CTS. Generally, women are at higher risk of CTS between the ages of 45 and 54. Then, the risk increases for both men and women as they age.
These are some of the things that might raise a woman’s chances of developing CTS:
Pregnancy – Hormonal changes during pregnancy and build up of fluid can put pregnant women at greater risk of getting CTS, especially during the last few months. Most doctors treat CTS in pregnant women with wrist splits or rest, rather than surgery, as CTS almost always goes away following childbirth.
Menopause – Hormonal changes during menopause can put women at greater risk of getting CTS. Also, in some postmenopausal women, the wrist structures become enlarged and can press on the wrist nerve.
Breast Cancer – Some women who have a mastectomy get lymphedema, the build-up of fluids that go beyond the lymph system’s ability to drain it. In mastectomy patients, this causes pain and swelling of the arm. Although rare, some of these women will get CTS due to pressure on the nerve from this swelling.
It is important to be treated by a doctor for CTS in order to avoid permanent damage to the wrist nerve and muscles of the hand and thumb. Underlying causes such as diabetes or a thyroid problem should be addressed first. Left untreated, CTS can cause nerve damage that leads to loss of feeling and less hand strength. Over time, the muscles of the thumb can become weak and damaged. You can even lose the ability to feel hot and cold by touch. Permanent injury occurs in about 1 percent of those with CTS.
CTS is much easier to treat early on. Most CTS patients get better after first-step treatments such as rest, wrist splints, medications, physical therapy, and workplace ergonomic improvements. In more serious cases, surgery may be warranted.
Information in this article was provided by the National Women’s Health Information Center.