Family Health: Surgery brings relief from carpal tunnel syndrome

If you frequently have numbness or tingling in your hands, especially your thumb and first three fingers, you may have a condition called carpal tunnel syndrome.

This common problem can be frustrating and even debilitating. Symptoms can make it difficult to perform ordinary tasks like typing, operating tools or even holding a steering wheel.

People often wake up at night when their hands “go to sleep,” and weakness from carpal tunnel syndrome can make you drop things. Eventually sharp, piercing pain can extend up your arm.

These symptoms happen when the median nerve in your wrist becomes compressed. This nerve, along with the tendons that help move your hand, pass through the carpal tunnel – a space inside your wrist that is bounded by bones and a tough band of connective tissue called a ligament.

It’s a narrow space, and if the tendons become swollen they can press on the nerve. The result is carpal tunnel syndrome.

Your wrist tendons can swell for a number of reasons. A sprained or broken wrist can do it, and people with certain medical conditions, such as diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, are more likely to have carpal tunnel syndrome.

The most common cause, however, is repetitive motion. For example, people who type, operate power tools, or play musical instruments or video games for long periods are more likely to develop this condition.

For some people with mild symptoms, treatments like wearing a brace or splint or having steroid injections can help. But long-term pressure can permanently damage the median nerve.

If you have had symptoms for six months or more, your best option may be surgery. Carpal tunnel surgery is one of the most common hand surgeries in the U.S., and it has a high rate of success. It is called carpal tunnel release surgery, because it releases the pressure on the median nerve.

At Community Physician Group Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, we first evaluate your condition to make sure surgery is your best choice. We also explain each step of the surgery and recovery. Your surgery will follow this process:

  • You will have a local anesthetic to numb your wrist area. You may also have an IV medication to help you relax and be comfortable during the procedure.
  • An incision is made at the base of you palm, usually in one of the natural creases of your hand. This exposes the ligament that encloses the carpal tunnel.
  • A cut is made in the ligament, allowing a space to open up and give the tendons and median nerve more room.
  • Leaving the gap in the ligament open, the skin is closed with stitches. Under the skin, a scar will eventually grow across the newly opened area.
  • Your wrist and hand are bandaged to protect the incision as it heals.

Carpal tunnel release is outpatient surgery, and you’ll go home the same day. While you will probably have some pain from the surgery, you’re also likely to notice relief from your carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms.

For many people, nighttime pain, tingling and numbness are the first to resolve. Other symptoms should start improving soon after. Depending on your job, you may return to work between a few days and several months after surgery.