According to the last available data, the prevalence of wrist pain among people with physically demanding jobs was 10% in the short term and 24% in the medium term. In other words, wrist pain is common, but many people never do anything to ease it.
There are many different types of hand pain and wrist pain. Two of the most common types stem from carpal tunnel syndrome and cubital tunnel syndrome.
But what’s the difference between carpal tunnel vs cubital tunnel syndrome? How can you identify and treat them?
Let’s talk about it. Read on to learn all about these two common conditions.
What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
So what is carpal tunnel syndrome anyway? It’s a common condition, but many people don’t know what it is.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition that affects the hand and wrist. It occurs when a narrow passageway in the wrist (which is the carpal tunnel) becomes compressed and puts pressure on a nerve called the median nerve.
The carpal tunnel is like a literal tunnel made of bones and a strong band of tissue. Inside this tunnel, there are tendons and the median nerve.
The median nerve is responsible for providing feeling to the thumb, index finger, middle finger, and part of the ring finger. It also controls some muscles in the hand. It does a lot of work!
When the carpal tunnel gets squeezed, it can press on the median nerve. This can cause pain, tingling, and numbness in the affected fingers and the hand as a whole.
This pain and numbness can make it challenging to do everyday tasks like typing, gripping objects, or using tools. Many people find that their jobs become more difficult after they develop carpal tunnel syndrome. It’s common for people to wear braces on their wrists to ease some of the symptoms.
Causes of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
So what causes carpal tunnel syndrome? Again, it’s a common condition, so many people are clearly doing something to cause it.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is often caused by repetitive hand and wrist movements. These include things like typing on a computer for long hours or using vibrating tools (such as drills or tattoo machines). Anything that can put pressure on or inflame the wrist could potentially cause carpal tunnel syndrome.
This is unfortunate as many people have to do these things at work. Without a brace or other preventative measures, carpal tunnel syndrome is likely.
It also has connections to certain medical conditions such as diabetes, obesity, arthritis, or pregnancy. Some people have a greater predisposition to carpal tunnel syndrome due to the anatomy of their wrists.
Women are more prone to developing carpal tunnel syndrome than men and it’s more common among people who are middle-aged or older, but young people who perform repetitive movements often (in school or during sports, for example) can develop it as well.
Symptoms of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
The most common early symptom of carpal tunnel syndrome is a tingling sensation or feeling of numbness in the thumb, index finger, middle finger, and part of the ring finger. This sensation may extend to the palm and may be more obvious at night or during activities that involve bending the wrist.
The wrist itself, on the underside, may also feel numb or tingly. Some individuals may experience a sensation of “pins and needles” or a feeling of their hand falling asleep.
People with carpal tunnel syndrome may experience weakness in their hands. This makes it challenging to grip objects, perform fine motor tasks, or maintain a firm grasp. The weakness may not have any associated pain or sensation.
Carpal tunnel syndrome can cause pain if it’s left untreated. It can vary from a dull ache to sharp, shooting pain that radiates up the arm (up to the mid-forearm). The pain may worsen with certain activities or movements that involve flexing or moving the wrist.
Symptoms can and will get worse over time. If you notice numbness or weakness, you should consider seeing a doctor or buying a brace (if not both).
Treatment for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
You may be wondering how to treat carpal tunnel syndrome. There are many different options depending on the severity of it and your lifestyle. Here’s a quick rundown.
Rest and Lifestyle Changes
In mild cases, resting the hand and avoiding activities that worsen symptoms can provide relief. Modifying workstations and hand positions during repetitive tasks may also be recommended to reduce strain on the wrist.
This may involve adjusting the height and angle of computer keyboards, using ergonomic tools, and taking regular breaks from repetitive activities.
If a job requires those activities (like typing or tattooing, for example) more frequent breaks may be necessary.
Wearing a wrist splint or brace, especially at night, can help keep the wrist in a neutral position and prevent it from bending during sleep. This can alleviate pressure on the median nerve and reduce symptoms. You may also want to wear the brace while typing or doing other repetitive movements.
Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or prescription medications may be helpful to manage pain and reduce inflammation in the carpal tunnel area. This is a temporary solution. If the pain doesn’t subside, you may need further intervention.
Physical and Occupational Therapy
Physical therapy exercises can help improve wrist flexibility, strengthen muscles, and reduce pressure on the median nerve. A therapist can guide patients through exercises that target the hand, wrist, and forearm.
Occupational therapists can provide guidance on proper hand and wrist movements, suggest helpful tools, and teach techniques to minimize strain on the wrist during daily activities like work.
Injections of corticosteroids directly into the carpal tunnel can provide temporary relief. They’ll reduce inflammation and swelling around the median nerve. This is a more serious intervention.
In severe or persistent cases of carpal tunnel syndrome, when other treatments have not been effective, surgical intervention may be necessary.
Carpal tunnel release surgery involves cutting the ligament that forms the roof of the carpal tunnel. This relieves pressure on the median nerve. This is (typically) an outpatient procedure with a short recovery period.
What Is Cubital Tunnel Syndrome?
Now that we know what carpal tunnel syndrome is, what is cubital tunnel syndrome?
Cubital tunnel syndrome is a condition that affects the elbow and arm. It occurs when the ulnar nerve (rather than the median nerve), which runs through a narrow passage called the cubital tunnel on the inner side of the elbow, becomes compressed.
The ulnar nerve is responsible for providing sensation to the ring and little fingers and controlling certain hand muscles. When the nerve is compressed in the cubital tunnel, it can lead to symptoms such as tingling, numbness, and weakness in the hand and fingers.
Cubital tunnel syndrome is less common and well-known than carpal tunnel syndrome, but it’s still not an uncommon condition.
Causes of Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
As with carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive movements are often the culprit behind cubital tunnel syndrome.
Engaging in repetitive movements that involve bending the elbow (such as frequent bending and straightening of the elbow during work or sports activities) can put pressure on the ulnar nerve. This can lead to irritation and compression.
However, repetitive movements aren’t the only cause.
Leaning on the elbow for extended periods of time, especially on hard surfaces (such as desks or counters at work), can press the ulnar nerve against the cubital tunnel. This pressure can cause inflammation and affect nerve function.
Leaning your elbows on the table isn’t just impolite. It can also be dangerous!
Conditions that cause inflammation or swelling around the elbow joint, such as arthritis, can put pressure on the ulnar nerve and cause cubital tunnel syndrome. Obesity can also cause this problem.
As with carpal tunnel syndrome, some people are naturally more likely to develop this condition due to their anatomy. Bony or protruding elbows and tight cubital tunnels can cause problems.
Even your sleep position can make you more likely to develop cubital tunnel syndrome!
Symptoms of Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
How would you know if you were developing cubital tunnel syndrome?
The most common initial symptom is tingling or a “pins and needles” sensation. It happens in the ring and little fingers. This sensation may extend along the inner side of the forearm. You may also experience numbness in this same area.
After that comes weakness. Due to weakened hand muscles, individuals may experience increased clumsiness or difficulty with tasks that require precise hand movements. Even holding objects can become more challenging.
Arm and hand pain may develop along the inner side of the elbow or forearm. In some cases, the pain might radiate from the elbow down to the hand, following the path of the ulnar nerve.
Symptoms often get worse at night.
Treatment for Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
The treatment for cubital tunnel syndrome aims to relieve pressure on the ulnar nerve in the elbow and alleviate symptoms. The choice of treatment depends on the severity of the condition. Treatment methods are similar to those suggested for carpal tunnel syndrome.
Here’s a quick rundown of treatment options for cubital tunnel syndrome.
Rest and Activity Modification
Resting the affected arm and avoiding activities that exacerbate symptoms, especially those involving repetitive elbow bending, can provide some relief.
Modifying work or sports activities to reduce pressure on the ulnar nerve is also essential. You may want to rest your elbow on a soft surface while typing or take more frequent breaks during your activities.
Adjusting the height and angle of computer keyboards, using ergonomic tools, and taking regular breaks from repetitive tasks can all help alleviate symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome.
Wearing a long wrist splint or brace that keeps the elbow in a straight position can prevent bending and compression of the ulnar nerve during sleep, reducing symptoms. This is helpful for those who experience worse symptoms at night.
Engaging in physical therapy exercises can help improve flexibility, strengthen muscles, and reduce pressure on the ulnar nerve. A therapist can guide patients through exercises that target the affected arm and forearm.
Specific exercises, like nerve gliding exercises, that involve gently stretching and gliding the ulnar nerve may help improve its mobility and reduce irritation.
Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or various prescription medications may be helpful for pain management and inflammation reduction around the ulnar nerve. Again, this is a temporary solution. Be careful taking NSAIDs long-term.
Ulnar Nerve Transposition Surgery
In severe or persistent cases of cubital tunnel syndrome, when other treatment options haven’t been effective, surgical intervention may, again, be necessary. Ulnar nerve transposition surgery involves moving the ulnar nerve to a new position to relieve pressure on it and improve symptoms.
This may sound scary, but it’s a quick procedure that can be incredibly effective.
Carpal Tunnel vs Cubital Tunnel Syndrome: Which Do You Have?
At the end of the day, the easiest way to figure out if you have carpal tunnel vs cubital tunnel syndrome is to locate the pain and discomfort.
If the sensation is in the wrist, thumb, forefinger, middle finger, and ring finger, it’s likely carpal tunnel syndrome. If it’s in the elbow, pinky finger, and ring finger, cubital tunnel syndrome is the culprit.
The only way to know for sure is to visit a doctor, however. At Hand Surgery Specialists of Texas, we can help. From diagnosis to treatment, we’ll help you relieve your hand and wrist pain.
Contact us to schedule an appointment today.