Most people use a computer at work and also spend a lot of time on digital devices in their leisure time. So it’s no wonder carpal tunnel has become a common ailment in our society. Most people know a friend, colleague or family member who has suffered from this painful condition. With its rising visibility comes an increase in diagnoses.
However, what you assume to be carpal tunnel could really be something else. Carpal tunnel shares symptoms with other conditions such as wrist tendonitis, rheumatoid arthritis, pinched nerves and even tuberculosis. This is why it’s important to see a doctor for a clinical diagnosis. Read on for a full description of carpal tunnel syndrome and how it is different from other conditions that share its symptoms.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
CTS is caused by damage to the median nerve, which is connected to the hand by a “tunnel” of bones in the wrist. The most common symptom of CTS is numbness in the fingers, most commonly the thumb, index and middle finger.
If you think you have CTS, you should see a doctor for a clinical diagnosis. The doctor will take your medical history, complete a physical examination, and ask you to perform certain actions intended to cause symptom flare-ups in people with CTS. Sometimes very severe medical problems like multiple sclerosis or even tuberculosis can manifest as CTS symptoms. If any of your symptoms or exam results seem unusual, your doctor may order additional testing to rule out TB or other conditions.
As with CTS, wrist tendonitis is often caused by repetitive motions and overuse, but the damage occurs in the wrist tendons instead of the median nerve. Symptoms of wrist tendonitis develop slowly. You may not notice them at first or think the pain is an isolated incident. Eventually the ache or stiffness in your wrist and hand becomes a regular occurrence. This pain is the most common symptom of wrist tendonitis, though it can also present as numbness in the fingers, which makes it easy to confuse with CTS.
If you believe you’re suffering from wrist tendonitis, you should see a doctor. Imaging techniques such as an X-ray, ultrasound or MRI scan may be necessary to confirm the diagnosis.
Unlike carpal tunnel and wrist tendonitis, which often occur only in one hand, rheumatoid arthritis develops in pairs. For example, if you have RA in one hand, it will usually be present in the other hand as well. The main symptom of RA is pain and swelling in the joints, which may also become red and heated. Numbness in the hands is a shared symptom of rheumatoid arthritis and carpal tunnel, which is why one can be mistaken for the other. However, it’s important to realize RA can be the catalyst for carpal tunnel, meaning both conditions could be present at the same time.
Because it’s an autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult to diagnose. Medical attention is necessary for diagnosis and usually involves blood tests, imaging and the consideration of a patient’s medical history.
We often forget that all of our body parts are controlled by nerves connected to the spine. Thus, an injured or “pinched” nerve in your neck area can affect your hand and other remote body parts. A pinched nerve refers to a nerve in the neck that has been compressed or inflamed. Corresponding pain occurs in the area of the body controlled by the pinched nerve. So a pinched nerve can look just like carpal tunnel if it causes pain, weakness, or numbness in the hand and fingers.
There are many options for treating pinched nerves. You should see a doctor or a chiropractor to determine the cause of the pinched nerve. Depending on its origin, treatment may include surgery, chiropractic manipulation or other treatments.
Talk to a Doctor
Four to 10 million Americans experience carpal tunnel syndrome, according to the American College of Rheumatology. But although it’s a common cause of numbness and discomfort in the hand and fingers, it’s not the only cause.
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described in this article, consult with a medical professional to rule out similar but lesser-known conditions. You also want to be sure you don’t have another disease masquerading as carpal tunnel, such as tuberculosis or rheumatoid arthritis. Luckily, there are many treatment options for carpal tunnel and conditions like it. A diagnosis is nothing to fear.