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Carpal tunnel syndrome and median nerve lesions

Medical Professionals

Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find the Carpal tunnel syndrome article more useful, or one of our other health articles.

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What is carpal tunnel syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is by far the most common cause of median nerve damage. The reported incidence of CTS in the UK population is between 88-193 per 100,000 population.1 The incidence of CTS peaks in the late 50s, particularly in women, and the late 70s for men. In younger people the gender ratio is 3:1 in favour of females.

Pathogenesis2

The carpal tunnel is an anatomical compartment of the hand; it is bounded on three sides by carpal bones which form an arch, and on the palmar side by the transverse carpal ligament. CTS is caused by compression, entrapment or irritation of the median nerve within the carpal tunnel at the wrist, between the carpal bones and the fibrous flexor retinaculum. Anything that causes a reduction in the volume or increases the pressure within the compartment may cause CTS.

Rarely, compression of more proximal parts of the nerve can occur at the forearm or elbow. The two significant conditions are pronator teres syndrome and anterior interosseous syndrome.

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Carpal tunnel syndrome causes (aetiology)

Most cases of CTS are idiopathic. However, it may be associated with: 1

  • Pregnancy.

  • Overuse of the hand or wrist.

  • Wrist trauma.

  • Obesity.

  • Hypothyroidism.

  • Renal failure.

  • Diabetes.

  • Inflammatory arthropathy.

Other potential underlying causes include:

  • Post-Colles' fracture.

  • Flexion/extension injury of the wrist.

  • Use of walking aids.

  • Conditions encroaching on the space within the carpal tunnel (eg, aneurysm, neurofibroma, haemangioma, lipoma, ganglion, xanthoma and gouty tophi).

  • Menopause (including surgically induced).

  • Inflammatory arthritides of the wrist.

  • Acromegaly.

  • Renal dialysis.

  • Amyloidosis.

There is also evidence for a genetic component, although the exact basis of this has not been established.

Other median nerve lesions

The main risk factor is occupational - eg, dentists and shipyard workers using high-powered vibrating tools.

Carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms (presentation)1

CTS is characterised by tingling, numbness, or pain in the distribution of the median nerve (the thumb, index, and middle fingers, and medial half the ring finger on the palmar aspect) that is often worse at night and causes wakening.

The affected hand may be hung out of the bed at odd angles to try to revive it. Pain may become more persistent, and may radiate to the forearm, elbow, arm and even the shoulder.

Weakness may be noted in hand grip and opposition of the thumb. There may also be some muscle wasting of the thenar eminence in more severe cases.

  • Positive Phalen test: flexing the wrist for 60 seconds causes pain or paraesthesia in the median nerve distribution.

  • Positive Tinel's sign: tapping lightly over the median nerve at the wrist causes a distal paraesthesia in the median nerve distribution.

  • Positive carpal tunnel compression test: pressure over the proximal edge of the carpal ligament (proximal wrist crease) with thumbs causes paraesthesia to develop or increase in the median nerve distribution.

The symptoms of CTS have been estimated to be bilateral in up to 73% of cases, although they may not present at the same time.

If axonal injury occurs secondary to prolonged ischaemia, the nerve dysfunction may become irreversible.

Other median nerve lesions

Nerve damage at the elbow or forearm causes inability to flex the index finger and distal phalanx of the thumb with weak flexion of the middle finger and defective opposition of the thumb. This has been described as 'simian'.

There may be significant sensory loss over the palm and some fingers, with skin becoming dry, reddened and atrophic. With partial lesions, causalgia may develop hours or days later with dry scaly skin.

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Differential diagnosis

Other conditions which should be considered include:1

Investigations

Complex investigations are not necessary before starting conservative treatment in clinically obvious cases. However, in cases of diagnostic doubt, and before surgery, nerve conduction studies should be considered.3

Investigations are useful in patients whose clinical features yield a high index of suspicion for CTS but who fail to respond to first-line treatment.

  • Electroneurography (ENG) - this is the gold-standard investigation for CTS. The median nerve is stimulated proximal to the carpal ligament and compound muscle action potential is picked up over the thenar eminence.

  • Electromyography (EMG) - this is useful in some cases but is not as sensitive as ENG.

  • Ultrasonography - this is being used increasingly as a confirmatory test. It is obviously relatively cheap, quick and non-invasive.

  • MRI scan - this can be used as an alternative to ultrasonography and when electrophysiological studies are ambiguous. CTS can be classified into three groups according to the nerve T2 signal and the flattening ratio at the hook of hamate level: Group 1 - high and oval; Group 2 - high and flat; Group 3 - low and flat.4

Carpal tunnel syndrome treatment1

Conservative management may be successful for early or mild disease or where advanced disease is associated with minimal symptoms.

If non-operative strategies fail, open carpal tunnel decompression provides good results and high levels of reported satisfaction for most patients.

General measures

  • Explain that the symptoms may resolve within six months. This is most likely to occur in young people (less than 30 years of age) if the symptoms are unilateral and of short duration, and in women in whom fluid retention due to pregnancy is the precipitating factor.

  • A 2023 Cochrane review showed there is insufficient evidence to conclude whether splinting benefits people with CTS. Low-certainty evidence suggests that people may have a greater chance of experiencing overall improvement with night-time splints than no treatment.5

  • Advise minimisation of activities that exacerbate symptoms.

  • Consider referring patients when the diagnosis is uncertain or where treatments have failed to work after three months. In addition, patients with severe symptoms, especially if there is motor weakness of the thumb or persistent sensory or motor disturbance, should also be referred.

Corticosteroids

  • Local steroid injections are widely used for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes in the management of CTS.

  • One study has demonstrated that the response to steroid injection was around 70% after one month. Those with less severe nerve compression shown on MRI scan were more likely to respond compared to those with more severe compression.4

  • A 2023 Cochrane review of local corticosteroid injection versus placebo found it to be an effective treatment for mild to moderate CTS with benefits lasting up to six months and a reduced need for surgery for up to twelve months.6

  • A 2022 systematic review and meta-analysis compared local steroid injection and surgical decompression. It found both are effective treatments in alleviating symptoms in people with CTS, although steroid injection provided greater pain relief.7

Surgical

  • Surgical treatment consists of the release of the nerve by cutting the transverse carpal ligament. This can be done either with an open approach or endoscopically.

  • Although surgery usually produces good outcomes, it has disadvantages, which are mainly surgery-related pain, hand weakness, and complications from surgery.

  • 2020 meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials comparing the open and endoscopic approaches for carpal tunnel release found the endoscopic approach results in better recovery of daily life functions, as revealed by higher satisfaction rates, greater key pinch strengths, earlier return to work times, and fewer scar-related complications.8

  • Ultra-minimally invasive sonographically guided, and thread carpal tunnel release are relatively new techniques which preserve the superficial anatomy and minimise the potential damage of a surgical approach.9 10

  • There are numerous rehabilitation treatments available after surgery. These include immobilisation using a wrist orthosis, dressings, exercise, controlled cold therapy, ice therapy, multimodal hand rehabilitation, laser therapy, electrical modalities, scar desensitisation and arnica. However, there is limited and, in general, low-quality evidence for the benefit of these.11

  • Following surgery, patients with desk-based duties are usually advised to return to work after 3 days; for duties requiring repetitive, light lifting of <10 lbs, the median recommended time is 10 days; and for heavy manual duties, the median recommended time to return to work is 30 days.12

Other treatments

  • A 2023 meta-analysis of RCTs showed acupuncture might be beneficial as an adjunctive treatment and improve symptoms, grip strength and electrophysiological function.13

  • Physiotherapy may involve:

    • Stretching the wrist to help increase blood flow, therefore promoting healing.

    • Simple exercises, such as wrist bend, wrist lift and wrist flex, to help improve the patient's strength and flexibility.

    • Nerve glide exercises to improve the mobility of the median nerve.

    • However, some exercises may exacerbate a patient's symptoms.

  • There is limited and very low-quality evidence of benefit for all of a diverse collection of exercise and mobilisation interventions for CTS.14

Prognosis

Symptoms can resolve within six months in about one third of persons, particularly younger patients (or those with CTS due to pregnancy).1 A poor prognosis is often associated with bilateral symptoms and a positive Phalen test. However, the severity of symptoms and signs often doesn't correlate well with the extent of nerve compression.

70-90% of mild to moderate CTS respond well to conservative management measures. Some degree of recurrence is seen in 1 in 3 patients within 5 years, even after surgical decompression.2

Further reading and references

  1. Carpal tunnel syndrome; NICE CKS, August 2022 (UK access only)
  2. Sevy JO, Varacallo M; Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
  3. Osiak K, Elnazir P, Walocha JA, et al; Carpal tunnel syndrome: state-of-the-art review. Folia Morphol (Warsz). 2022;81(4):851-862. doi: 10.5603/FM.a2021.0121. Epub 2021 Nov 16.
  4. Aoki T, Oshige T, Matsuyama A, et al; High-resolution MRI predicts steroid injection response in carpal tunnel syndrome patients. Eur Radiol. 2014 Mar;24(3):559-65. doi: 10.1007/s00330-013-3064-y. Epub 2013 Nov 19.
  5. Karjalainen TV, Lusa V, Page MJ, et al; Splinting for carpal tunnel syndrome. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2023 Feb 27;2(2):CD010003. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD010003.pub2.
  6. Ashworth NL, Bland JDP, Chapman KM, et al; Local corticosteroid injection versus placebo for carpal tunnel syndrome. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2023 Feb 1;2(2):CD015148. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD015148.
  7. Schafer L, Maffulli N, Baroncini A, et al; Local Corticosteroid Injections versus Surgical Carpal Tunnel Release for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Life (Basel). 2022 Apr 4;12(4):533. doi: 10.3390/life12040533.
  8. Li Y, Luo W, Wu G, et al; Open versus endoscopic carpal tunnel release: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2020 Apr 27;21(1):272. doi: 10.1186/s12891-020-03306-1.
  9. Rojo-Manaute JM, Capa-Grasa A, Rodriguez-Maruri GE, et al; Ultra-minimally invasive sonographically guided carpal tunnel release: anatomic study of a new technique. J Ultrasound Med. 2013 Jan;32(1):131-42.
  10. Mende K, Kamphuis SJM, Schmid V, et al; Early Postoperative Recovery after Modified Ultra-Minimally Invasive Sonography-Guided Thread Carpal Tunnel Release. J Pers Med. 2023 Mar 31;13(4):610. doi: 10.3390/jpm13040610.
  11. Peters S, Page MJ, Coppieters MW, et al; Rehabilitation following carpal tunnel release. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Feb 17;2:CD004158. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD004158.pub3.
  12. von Bergen TN, Reid R, Delarosa M, et al; Surgeons' Recommendations for Return to Work After Carpal Tunnel Release. Hand (N Y). 2023 Jan;18(1_suppl):100S-105S. doi: 10.1177/15589447221085700. Epub 2022 Jun 29.
  13. Dong Q, Li X, Yuan P, et al; Acupuncture for carpal tunnel syndrome: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Front Neurosci. 2023 Feb 23;17:1097455. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2023.1097455. eCollection 2023.
  14. Page MJ, O'Connor D, Pitt V, et al; Exercise and mobilisation interventions for carpal tunnel syndrome. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Jun 13;6:CD009899. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD009899.

Article history

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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