Carpal tunnel syndrome

Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Bryony Henderson

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Carpal tunnel syndrome happens when there’s too much pressure on the median nerve in your wrist. It causes tingling, numbness, weakness and pain. Read more about the causes and treatment.

What is carpal tunnel syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common hand condition. It helps to understand your anatomy – the wrist has an opening called the carpal tunnel. An important nerve, called the median nerve, runs through this tunnel, allowing you to feel and move your thumb and 3 middle fingers. Too much pressure on your carpal tunnel can compress or irritate this nerve, causing symptoms.

What are the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome?

The symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome usually start gradually and come and go. They’re often worse at night.

  • Pain in fingers, hand or arm (this can extend up to your shoulder at night)

  • Numbness

  • Tingling or pins and needles

  • Weakness in the thumb or difficulty gripping things

What causes carpal tunnel syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome happens when the carpal tunnel inside your wrist swells and squeezes the median nerve. It can be hard to pinpoint an exact cause, but some things increase the risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome:

  • Doing frequent small movements with your wrists, like typing, grasping, or doing certain sports or hobbies

  • Hormonal changes like pregnancy or menopause

  • Injuries like sprains, strains or breaks

  • Obesity

  • Diabetes

  • Rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and other types of chronic inflammation

How common is carpal tunnel syndrome?

Carpal tunnel is a common hand condition. It’s more likely to affect women than men, especially during pregnancy.

How is carpal tunnel syndrome diagnosed?

A doctor will ask specific questions about your symptoms and lifestyle and take a close look at your hands. They may perform a few tests to stimulate your wrist and check its function.

How is carpal tunnel syndrome treated?

Carpal tunnel syndrome can sometimes get better by itself within a few months. The treatment depends on the severity of the symptoms. There are a few things you can do to treat carpal tunnel syndrome yourself:

  • Relieve pain –You can take over the counter medicine like paracetamol or ibuprofen to help relieve mild pain and swelling in the short term.

  • Ice your wrist – apply a cool pack to your wrist for 20 minutes. Take care not to develop an ice burn by wrapping the ice pack in a clean tea-towel

  • Immobilise your wrist – Wearing a padded split at night for at least 4 weeks can help improve your symptoms. This keeps your wrist in a straight position to relieve pressure on your carpal tunnel. You can purchase a splint from your local pharmacy or online.

  • Rest – Cut down or stop activities that cause your symptoms. If you have to carry on with certain triggering activities, take frequent breaks.

  • Try gentle hand exercises – There is some evidence that hand exercise can help strengthen your wrists and ease symptoms.

A doctor may recommend further treatment if your symptoms don’t improve.

  • Steroid injections – injection of steroids lidocaine, directly into your wrist to help relieve pressure on the median nerve if you have mild or intermittent symptoms.

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome surgery – if it continues getting worse and none of the other treatments works then the GP may refer you to a specialist. This 20-minute procedure usually cures the condition. The surgery involves making a small cut into the wrist and carpal tunnel to relieve pressure on the nerve. This is done under local anaesthesia and should have a short recovery time.

How long does carpal tunnel syndrome last?

Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome can improve on their own within 6 months. If the underlying cause resolves then symptoms go away soon after. For example, if the cause is pregnancy, you should experience a relief in symptoms shortly after.

How to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome

It can be impossible to completely avoid activities that trigger your symptoms, but a few adaptations can make a big difference.

  • Wearing gloves to support your wrist – fingerless gloves are good for keeping your fingers cool

  • Use tools that help reduce the movement of your wrists

  • Take frequent breaks to rest and stretch your wrists

  • Work on your wrist’s posture to keep it as neutral as possible

When should I talk to a doctor?

If you experience any of the symptoms associated with carpal tunnel syndrome contact your doctor, particularly if your symptoms are getting worse or not going away and treatment at home is not working.

How can Livi help?

A Livi doctor can talk to you about your symptoms and give you advice on the next best steps. They can give you lifestyle and self help advice and can also make recommendations on further treatment if these have not been effective.

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi