Is It Carpal Tunnel or Something Else?

Man holding his hand feeling pain in the wrist and fingers, potentially carpal tunnel

January 24, 2023

Clinical Contributors to this story:
Carissa Meyer, M.D.

Do you feel burning, numbness or tingling in your fingers, particularly the thumb, index, middle, and ring finger? Do your fingers feel swollen, particularly at night? Do you occasionally feel a shock-like sensation that can radiate to the first four fingers, or a pain or tingling that travels all the way up the forearm?

Several conditions can cause pain or numbness in the hands and fingers, so without seeing a doctor, it can be difficult to decipher exactly what’s going on, says Carissa L. Meyer, M.D., hand surgeon at Mountainside Medical Center. Here are a few other common conditions that can cause hand, wrist or finger pain, and what to know about each:

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome:

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common condition in which the tunnel containing the wrist nerve and tendons—called the carpal tunnel—narrows. “The area becomes thick and inflamed, leading to compression on the median nerve near the bottom of the hand, causing pain, numbness and weakness in the first four fingers of the hand. Milder symptoms of swelling or cramping may happen as well,” Dr. Meyer says. “In more than half the cases, both hands are affected, though the dominant hand is likely more severe.”

Carpal tunnel syndrome most often affects people between the ages of 40 and 60, and women are three times more likely than men to develop the condition. “People with diabetes or other metabolic disorders that affect the nerves are also more susceptible,” says Dr. Meyer.

Osteoarthritis:

When the cartilage, which pads the bones, within the joints begin to wear down, osteoarthritis (also called degenerative joint disease) can develop. Without enough cartilage, bones no longer glide easily against each other, causing pain and swelling.

The hands are one of the most common places that osteoarthritis can develop. People usually feel pain in all the finger joints, particularly at the base of the thumb. “Arthritis also generally doesn’t cause tingling or numbness,” says Dr. Meyer. “Instead, it causes swelling, stiffness and tenderness, particularly in the morning and, more specifically, around the joints.” 

Osteoarthritis can also cause bony bumps around the joints, particularly the knuckles, and affects both hands equally.

Trigger Finger: This condition happens when one of the tendons that flexes the fingers becomes inflamed, usually from overuse. The condition is also common in patients with diabetes. The tendon passes through a tunnel in the palm and can start to rub or get caught in the tunnel, causing pain, swelling or the classic catching or “triggering” of the finger. 

De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis (or De Quervain’s Tendinitis):

This condition happens when two tendons that pass through the wrist near the lower thumb become compressed and pinched, causing pain and swelling in the area.

It’s usually caused by overuse of the thumb and wrist, often by playing sports like tennis, golf or racquetball, repetitive strumming of an instrument like guitar or bass, or even repeatedly lifting a baby or an infant carrier. “Even gardening can trigger it if you’re digging sideways and gripping the shovel with your thumb,” says Dr. Meyer.

While de Quervain’s tenosynovitis causes pain and swelling in the wrist, it usually doesn’t cause numbness and tingling.

Sprained Wrist:

This can happen when the ligaments between the hand and wrist bones stretch or tear. Wrist sprains are common when you use your hand to catch yourself while falling, or when you put extreme pressure on your wrist continually in certain sports like tennis, gymnastics or boxing.

The swelling and inflammation of a sprained wrist can mimic the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. However, a sprain usually happens after some type of injury, and is accompanied by bruising, tenderness and loss of motion. “The symptoms of a sprain should get better with time, unlike a condition like carpal tunnel,” says Dr. Meyer.

What to Do if You Have Hand or Wrist Pain

If you are suffering from hand, finger or wrist pain, and think you have one of these conditions or injuries, it’s important to see a doctor. “The quicker the diagnosis and treatment, the easier it will be to reverse the damage of any condition,” says Dr. Meyer.

Next Steps & Resources: 

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.

 
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