Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Signs, Symptoms & Complications (2023)

The carpal tunnel is a narrow passageway between the forearm bones and ligaments. Tendons and the median nerve run through it.

Carpal tunnel syndrome(CTS) develops when inflammation narrows the tunnel and compresses the nerve. This can cause numbness,tingling, pain, and weakness in your hands. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a repetitive stress injury, which means it develops gradually.

This article will teach you the most common signs and symptoms and when to see your healthcare provider.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Signs, Symptoms & Complications (1)

Symptoms

The symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome often affect your dominant hand first. Without treatment, they tend to get worse over time. That's especially true if you continue the activity that caused it.

Symptoms are often most bothersome at night and may even wake you up. Activities that involve repetitive hand motions can also worsen symptoms. Some of these activities include:

  • Driving
  • Holding your phone
  • Holding a book or newspaper
  • Gripping a pen
  • Buttoning your clothes

Symptoms can progress until you feel them often or all the time.

Changes in Sensation

The most common symptoms of carpal tunnel are tingling and numbness. Some people also experience electric-shock sensations. You may feel the tingling or shock sensation traveling up from your wrist to your arm.

You're most likely to have these feelings along the median nerve. This nerve passes through the carpal tunnel in your wrist. It then runs through your palm and into your ring, middle, and index fingers plus the thumb. With carpal tunnel, the little finger shouldn't go numb.

Many people with carpal tunnel say their entire hand feels numb. When a healthcare provider tests it, however, the numbness is almost always absent in the little finger and half of the ring finger.

Symptoms are sometimes relieved by shaking your hands. Over time, you may lose theability to tell hot from cold in the numb areas.

Why Body Parts Tingle and Fall Asleep

Pain

Many people have pain in the same location as their numbness. Others have pain radiating up the forearm as well as down into the hand. Like the tingling, pain is often relieved by shaking out the hand.

Swollen Feeling

You may feel like your fingers are swollen and have a hard time using them. However, there's usually no evidence of swelling. For example, your rings will still fit as usual.

Weakness and Atrophy

As symptoms progress, you may discover you don't have as much grip strength. It can become hard to hold objects and perform tasks that require manual dexterity.

You may find yourself dropping things. It can feel like you're clumsy, but it's from the weakness and numbness. It's also because the nerves can't maintain a sense of where your hand is in space (proprioception).

Nerves have three primary functions:

  1. Sending messages to the brain about pain andsensations
  2. Processing sensory information
  3. Sending messages from the brain to contract muscles

When CTS is severe, messages from the brain to the small muscles in the palm of the hand can be interrupted. That can cause atrophy (weakening) in muscles at the base of the thumb.

In severe cases, the meaty part of the affected palm can look significantly smaller than in the other hand.Muscle atrophy makes treatment and recovery less effective, even after surgery.

Recap

Symptoms of carpal tunnel include numbness, tingling, pain, feeling like your fingers are swollen and clumsy, nighttime pain, trouble with daily tasks, weakness, and muscle atrophy.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

You should see a healthcare provider if you have possible CTS symptoms for two weeks or longer. At first, the symptoms may come and go. See your provider if they're:

  • Constant
  • Waking you up at night
  • Interfering with everyday tasks

Allowing CTS symptoms to go on for too long increases the risk of muscle atrophy and permanent nerve damage. Early treatment can also help you avoid surgery.

(Video) Carpal Tunnel Syndrome | Risk Factors, Pathogenesis, Signs & Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment

Visit yourprimary care provider for an assessment and general health check. If you don't have a primary care provider, you can see an internal medicine physician or an occupational medicine specialist. You may be referred to an orthopedic surgeon, neurologist, hand surgeon, rheumatologist, or physiatrist for further testing or treatment.

To diagnose CTS, your healthcare provider will consider other possible causes of your symptoms. That includes other nerve conditions and arthritis.

CTS is more common in people with underlying conditions such as:

  • Hypothyroidism
  • Diabetes
  • Rheumatoid arthritis

It's possible that you have one of these conditions without knowing it. Seeing your healthcare provider will allow you to get a diagnosis and appropriate treatment for both CTS and other conditions.

If you have a sudden loss of feeling in your arm, go to an emergency room. This is a sign of a more serious condition, not CTS.

How CTS Is Diagnosed

Recap

See your healthcare provider if you have CTS symptoms that last for two weeks, have become constant, wake you up, or interfere with basic activities. Early diagnosis and treatment leads to better outcomes.

Summary

Compression of the median nerve in the carpal tunnel can cause pain, numbness, tingling, weakness, and other symptoms.

If symptoms impact your sleep or activities, get medical help. Letting it go for too long can lead to permanent nerve damage and makes surgery more likely.

A Word From Verywell

Because early CTS symptoms come and go, you might think nothing serious is wrong. Remember that the sooner you have it diagnosed, the faster and easier your recovery is likely to be.

If you do need surgery, don't panic. It's a simple, routine surgery that helps many people get back full function in their hands.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does carpal tunnel syndrome feel like?

    Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome can include:

    • Tingling, numbness, and/or electric shock sensations
    • Shooting or tingling pain that radiates into your wrist or forearm
    • Fingers that feel swollen when they aren't
    • Symptoms that set in mostly at night, at least at first
    • Hand weakness, especially a weak grip

    The symptoms of CTS tend to be felt throughout most of your hand, including your palm, thumb, and fingers—except for the pinky.

    Learn More:CTS Massage Techniques

    (Video) CARPAL TUNNEL SYNDROME, Causes, Signs and Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment.
  • What causes carpal tunnel syndrome?

    Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by compression of the median nerve in the wrist. This happens when inflammation narrows the carpal tunnel and puts pressure on the nerve.

    Certain wrist positions (e.g., sleeping with flexed wrists) and repetitive activities can increase pressure. Other causes include:

    • A wrist injury, like a sprain or fracture
    • Structural issues in the wrist
    • An underactive thyroid
    • Rheumatoid arthritis
    • Fluid retention during pregnancy or menopause
  • Does using a keyboard or a mouse cause carpal tunnel syndrome?

    No, most studies have not shown that typing or using a mouse directly cause CTS. However, long hours of any activity that keeps your wrist in a flexed position—like holding a pen or using some types of machinery—can increase pressure on the median nerve.

  • What helps relieve pain from a carpal tunnel flare?

    You can relieve CTS pain by:

    • Icing your risk to reduce swelling
    • Taking frequent breaks from activities that make your pain worse
    • Wearing a wrist brace at night or while you're performing activities that aggravate the nerve
    • Doing wrist stretches and exercises or yoga
    • Getting acupuncture
  • How is carpal tunnel syndrome treated?

    Carpal tunnel syndrome treatments depend on the severity of your symptoms. In mild cases, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and aspirin can help.

    Corticosteroid injections or oral prednisone may help with more intense pain. Carpal tunnel release surgery is an option if other treatments fail. Like any surgical procedure, it comes with some risks.

  • What happens if carpal tunnel syndrome is left untreated?

    (Video) CARPAL TUNNEL SYNDROME

    Untreated carpal tunnel syndrome progresses. You may lose grip strength and feeling in your fingers and hand. Severe CTS can lead to atrophy (weakness and deterioration) of the muscles at the base of the thumb.

    Once the muscles have atrophied, even surgery cannot fully recover hand function. Prevention and early treatment are essential.

  • How can I prevent carpal tunnel?

    Prevention is based on keeping your wrists in a neutral position during activities and avoiding repetitive strain. Specialized work training programs can help you learn correct posture.

    Regular breaks and wrist stretches can help, too. Wearing fingerless gloves can keep hands and wrists warm plus promote circulation and flexibility.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Chammas M, Boretto J, Burmann LM, Ramos RM, dos Santos Neto FC, Silva JB. Carpal tunnel syndrome – part I (anatomy, physiology, etiology and diagnosis). Revista Brasileira de Ortopedia. 2014;49(5):429-436. doi:10.1016/j.rboe.2014.08.001

  2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Carpal tunnel syndrome.

  3. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: OrthoInfo. Carpal tunnel syndrome.

  4. Fernandes CH, Meirelles LM, Raduan neto J, Nakachima LR, Dos santos JB, Faloppa F. Carpal tunnel syndrome with thenar atrophy: evaluation of the pinch and grip strength in patients undergoing surgical treatment. Hand (N Y). 2013;8(1):60-3. doi:10.1007/s11552-012-9471-8

  5. Karne SS, Bhalerao NS. Carpal tunnel syndrome in hypothyroidism. J Clin Diagn Res. 2016;10(2):OC36-8. doi:10.7860/JCDR/2016/16464.7316

    (Video) Complaints and History of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

  6. American Stroke Association. Stroke symptoms.

  7. Kozak A, Schedlbauer G, Wirth T, Euler U, Westermann C, Nienhaus A. Association between work-related biomechanical risk factors and the occurrence of carpal tunnel syndrome: an overview of systematic reviews and a meta-analysis of current research. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2015;16(1):1-9. doi:10.1186/s12891-015-0685-0

Additional Reading

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Signs, Symptoms & Complications (3)

By Jonathan Cluett, MD
Jonathan Cluett, MD, is board-certified in orthopedic surgery. He served as assistant team physician to Chivas USA (Major League Soccer) and the United States men's and women's national soccer teams.

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FAQs

What are the complications of carpal tunnel? ›

Carpal tunnel syndrome may cause irreversible median nerve damage, leading to permanent impairment and disability. Chronic wrist and hand pain with or without reflex sympathetic dystrophy. CTS can cause atrophy and weakness of the muscles at the base of the thumb in the palm of the hand.

Can carpal tunnel cause extreme pain? ›

At first, symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome come and go, but as the condition worsens, symptoms may become constant. Pain may radiate up the arm all the way to the shoulder. Over time, if untreated, carpal tunnel syndrome can cause the muscles on the thumb side of your hand to waste away (atrophy).

Is carpal tunnel syndrome serious? ›

Carpal tunnel syndrome usually isn't serious. With treatment, the pain will typically go away and you'll have no lasting damage to your hand or wrist.

Does carpal tunnel qualify for disability? ›

If you have been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, you may qualify for disability benefits if the symptoms are severe enough to interfere with your ability to work. These benefits may be provided by an insurance policy that offers coverage for both short and long-term disability benefits.

What is Stage 4 carpal tunnel syndrome? ›

The end-stage of severe carpal tunnel syndrome is heralded by advanced muscle loss. The muscles at the base of the thumb (thenar muscles) are in their final stages of degeneration. In other words, they slowly waste away. That means there's noticeable muscle "wasting" (loss) at the base of the thumb.

What can happen if carpal tunnel syndrome is left untreated? ›

If left untreated, carpal tunnel syndrome can lead to weakness and lack of coordination in your fingers and thumb. Treatment can relieve pressure on the nerve and, for most people, eliminate their symptoms. The carpal tunnel is a small passageway on the palm side of your wrist.

What is the main cause of carpal tunnel syndrome? ›

Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) occurs when the median nerve, which runs from the forearm into the palm of the hand, becomes pressed or squeezed at the wrist. The carpal tunnel—a narrow, rigid passageway of ligament and bones at the base of the hand—houses the median nerve and the tendons that bend the fingers.

Does carpal tunnel cause permanent damage? ›

If carpal tunnel is not treated, the nerve can be damaged. This damage can cause permanent weakness, numbness, and tingling. Some other common symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include: Clumsiness of the hand when gripping objects.

What organs does carpal tunnel syndrome affect? ›

Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is a disorder that causes pain and weakness in the hand and wrist. CTS develops from problems in a nerve in the wrist -- not the muscles, as some people believe. The symptoms of CTS can range from mild to incapacitating.

What organs are affected by carpal tunnel? ›

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a peripheral nerve disorder in which a nerve becomes pinched or compressed. Peripheral nerves connect the body with the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord). This syndrome involves the carpal tunnel nerve, also known as the median nerve.

Can carpal tunnel affect your legs? ›

Unfortunately, what you may develop instead is a case of tarsal tunnel syndrome. The simple reason you cannot develop carpal tunnel syndrome in your feet is because the carpal tunnel is found in your wrist. But there is a very similar anatomical structure found in your ankle, known as the tarsal tunnel.

Can carpal tunnel affect your heart? ›

Bilateral carpal tunnel may be a warning sign

“The proteins act like scar tissue and make that organ stiffer than normal. You can get proteins that build up and cause heart arrhythmias like slow heartbeat that causes people to faint or blackout. In more serious cases, it can cause heart failure.”

What will a doctor do for carpal tunnel? ›

Your provider may inject the carpal tunnel with a corticosteroid such as cortisone to relieve pain. Sometimes the provider uses an ultrasound to guide these injections. Corticosteroids decrease inflammation and swelling, which relieves pressure on the median nerve.

Can you drive with carpal tunnel? ›

Driving is not recommended for 1-2 weeks after carpal tunnel surgery. Patients often feel pain or sensitivity in the affected wrist during the first few weeks following surgery. This sensation may affect the ability to drive safely.

Should you continue to work with carpal tunnel? ›

Non-surgical treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome

You cannot 'work through' carpal tunnel syndrome. At first, the pain and stiffness may be slight. But they may increase until your hand hurts all the time. You can suffer permanent damage if the cause is not addressed.

Can carpal tunnel turn into arthritis? ›

Arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome are two distinct conditions that can happen on their own. However, sometimes arthritis can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. This means that if you have arthritis in your wrist or hand, you might have a higher risk of getting carpal tunnel syndrome.

When should I worry about carpal tunnel syndrome? ›

You should see a doctor if you develop: Any carpal tunnel symptoms that affect your ability to work. Weakness in the thumb, fingers, or hand. Inability to bring the index finger and thumb together.

Does carpal tunnel get worse with age? ›

In most patients, CTS worsens over time, indicating the importance of prompt diagnosis and early treatment. However, it's important to take the patient's age into account when making any diagnosis and treatment recommendations, as other common conditions may cause similar symptoms.

When should I worry about carpal tunnel syndrome? ›

You should see a doctor if you develop: Any carpal tunnel symptoms that affect your ability to work. Weakness in the thumb, fingers, or hand. Inability to bring the index finger and thumb together.

What happens if carpal tunnel isn't treated? ›

If left untreated, carpal tunnel syndrome can lead to weakness and lack of coordination in your fingers and thumb. Treatment can relieve pressure on the nerve and, for most people, eliminate their symptoms. The carpal tunnel is a small passageway on the palm side of your wrist.

What happens if you let carpal tunnel go untreated? ›

Ignoring symptoms of this carpal tunnel syndrome can lead to permanent nerve damage. First, you may notice tingling or numbness in your fingers that comes and goes. Over time, the sensations may get worse, lasting longer or even waking you up at night.

What does carpal tunnel syndrome pain feel like? ›

Carpal tunnel syndrome causes a tingling feeling or pins and needles, numbness, and sometimes pain in the hand. The symptoms can sometimes be felt in the forearm or further up your arm. It tends to come on gradually over a period of weeks.

Can carpal tunnel affect your heart? ›

Bilateral carpal tunnel may be a warning sign

“The proteins act like scar tissue and make that organ stiffer than normal. You can get proteins that build up and cause heart arrhythmias like slow heartbeat that causes people to faint or blackout. In more serious cases, it can cause heart failure.”

Does carpal tunnel get worse with age? ›

In most patients, CTS worsens over time, indicating the importance of prompt diagnosis and early treatment. However, it's important to take the patient's age into account when making any diagnosis and treatment recommendations, as other common conditions may cause similar symptoms.

Can carpal tunnel lead to permanent nerve damage? ›

If carpal tunnel is not treated, the nerve can be damaged. This damage can cause permanent weakness, numbness, and tingling. Some other common symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include: Clumsiness of the hand when gripping objects.

What is the fastest way to get rid of carpal tunnel? ›

Here are nine home remedies for carpal tunnel relief:
  1. Take breaks from repetitive tasks. ...
  2. Wear splints on your wrists. ...
  3. Lighten up. ...
  4. Mind your flexion. ...
  5. Stay warm. ...
  6. Stretch it out. ...
  7. Elevate your hands and wrists whenever possible. ...
  8. Try over-the-counter (OTC) medications.

What is the main cause of carpal tunnel syndrome? ›

This abnormal pressure on the nerve can result in numbness, tingling, pain, and weakness in the hand. Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by pressure on the median nerve as it travels through the carpal tunnel.

What triggers carpal tunnel pain? ›

Any kind of repetitive motion of the hand and wrist can irritate your tendons, which may also result in pressure on your median nerve. This can trigger carpal tunnel syndrome. Continuous typing is one activity that can trigger carpal tunnel syndrome. People who work the cash register are also at risk.

Does carpal tunnel affect your shoulder? ›

Carpal tunnel syndrome, resulting from a “pinched nerve” at the wrist, can be felt at the shoulder in addition to the hand. Pain from the shoulder can often result in secondary pain at the neck or even occasional tingling to the hand.

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