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Do I Have to Have Surgery For Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

“For the last few months, I’ve been waking up at night with numbness and tingling in my hand. Lately, I’ve been waking up more often, 3-4 times a night and I’m having a hard time falling back to sleep. When I drive, my hands fall asleep within a few minutes and I have to shake my hand and fingers to wake them up. This has gotten to the point where I have to do something but I really don’t want surgery. What are my non-surgical options?”

CTS or, carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition where a nerve (called the median nerve) that travels down from the neck into the arm and through the wrist becomes pinched and inflamed. Common symptoms include numbness, tingling, dexterity problems (such as difficulty buttoning shirts), and opening jars due to weakness in grip and pinch strength. Sleep interruptions and loss of many daily activities, including work, occur because of CTS.

There are many non-surgical approaches to the treatment of CTS that should be utilized before surgery is considered, according to the American Academy of Neurology. In one study, 40% of neurologist polled recommended non-surgical care due to the potential side effects of surgery, some of which being severe, resulting in lengthy work loss post-surgically. A partial list of non-surgical care options include:

  1. Rest – Giving the inflamed CTS time to heal is therapeutic but not always an option.
  2. Activity/job modifications – Avoiding certain activities or modifying them by taking breaks during the work day, slowing down the pace of the job, altering the position of the job task, such as propping up a part so that the wrists do not have to bend to the extremes, or when necessary, complete avoidance of the job task.
  3. Wrist Splint – This is a brace that maintains the wrist in a neutral position so it cannot easily bend. When the wrist flexes or extends, the pressure inside the carpal tunnel (on the palm side of the wrist) increases significantly, placing additional pressure on the already pinched median nerve. Wrist splints are especially useful at night.
  4. Nerve Gliding Exercises – These are exercises that stretch the wrist joint and muscle tendons (as well as the median nerve inside the carpal tunnel), with the objective of breaking adhesions that limit the normal glide or movement of the nerve in the forearm and wrist.
  5. Manual therapy techniques – These include manipulation of the arm including the forearm, wrist, and hand and sometimes the neck and shoulder, when needed. The objective is to improve the range of motion of the joints and soft tissues that may be participating in the process of median nerve pinching.
  6. Anti-inflammatory medication / nutrients – Medications include aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen and similar prescription drugs. Nutritional options including herbs (such as ginger, turmeric, boswellia), digestive enzymes, and Vitamin B6 may also help. Ice is also anti-inflammatory and direct, on-the-skin ice massage is quite effective.