There may be non-surgical ways to relieve your carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms.
Get the correct diagnosis
Carpal tunnel syndrome can be easily misdiagnosed. Similar symptoms may be caused by other conditions, most commonly a problem with your neck. Nerves travelling down to your hand may be compressed at the point in your neck where they leave your spine.
So if you have symptoms in your arm and/or neck as well as your hand, it might not be a carpal tunnel problem and carpal tunnel surgery won’t fix it.
A careful physical examination can often identify where the problem lies, but if there’s any doubt, a neurologist can do a test called an electromyogram (EMG) or nerve conduction study to find out.
Avoid repetitive activity
Try to avoid repeated movement that involves your wrist and hand. Try and take regular breaks if you’re doing activities like typing or using a computer mouse.
Elevate your hand and forearm at night
Sleeping with your hand and forearm on a pillow can help to relieve the symptoms.
Hot and cold therapy
If you’ve recently done something to aggravate your wrist, put an ice pack on it or soak it in a bucket with ice for 10 to 15 minutes. Do this once or twice an hour. If you have chronic pain, try using a heat pack instead.
There are a number of exercises you can do at home that can help with carpal tunnel syndrome, especially if it’s not too severe.
Wear a splint
Wearing a wrist splint at night can help relieve symptoms. The splint keeps your wrist in a neutral position and stops you curling it inwards, which can make symptoms worse. You can wear the splint during the day too if it helps.
You can get wrist splints from pharmacies, but your doctor or physio may recommend having one custom-made. You may be able to claim towards the cost of a wrist splint, depending on your level of cover.
Adjust your workstation
If you work at a computer, try and ensure you can sit with your upper arm vertical and your forearm at an angle of 90 degrees or more to your upper arm. Ask your employer if you can have an occupational therapist do an ergonomic assessment of your workstation and advise you how to do repetitive tasks.
Get a TENS machine
TENS stands for Transcutaneous (through the skin) Electrical Nerve Stimulation. It’s a little battery-operated device with electrodes you stick onto your skin. It generates a small electric current that gives a tingling sensation. You can control the strength and type of current.
Scientists don’t know exactly how TENS works but it can help with carpal tunnel symptoms. You can find TENS machines at pharmacies, and a physiotherapist can show you how to position it. You may be able to claim towards the cost of a TENS machine, depending on your level of cover.
Painkillers like paracetamol and anti-inflammatory analgesics like ibuprofen or diclofenac aren’t very useful for carpal tunnel syndrome. Instead your doctor may refer to you to a rheumatologist for a steroid injection, or a radiologist for an ultrasound-guided steroid injection. The injection can cause side effects, and may take a while to relieve your pain, so it’s wise to plan time off work or have it done before a weekend.
A short course of steroid tablets can also be used, although you’re more likely to get side effects like infection, blood clots and bone fractures. Tablets might not be right for you if you’re pregnant or have other medical conditions.
A medication for nerve pain called gabapentin (Neurontin®) can also be effective. Possible side effects including dizziness, drowsiness, dry mouth and tiredness.
A physio can diagnose the problem and treat it with a combination of splinting, exercise, massage, ultrasound or magnetic therapy, depending on your symptoms. They can also advise you how to modify your workstation and change the way you do things to protect your carpal tunnels.
An osteopath can treat carpal tunnel syndrome using manipulation techniques. It can improve symptoms but there’s limited evidence of its effectiveness.
An acupuncturist inserts thin needles into your skin, which are thought to stimulate your body’s natural painkilling chemicals. Because the needles are so thin, it’s not usually painful. While not part of traditional western medicine, there is evidence for its effectiveness in relieving mild to moderate carpal tunnel symptoms.
Make sure your acupuncture practitioner is qualified and registered with the Australian Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Association.
Note: If you have extras cover, you may be able to claim for consultations with physiotherapists, osteopaths and acupuncturists.
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