The Wrist Watch: Carpal Tunnel & Beyond
Wrist health. Let’s be honest, this is about the first time you’ve ever truly thought about it, isn’t it?
We all tend to ignore our wrists until they become a problem. Sure, we attach bracelets or put on a watch – but that’s about as far as our focus goes. Our wrists are just there. They don’t demand attention for the most part; they’re not often involved when we think about our overall well-being.
So when they suffer a problem, it can be a rude awakening, an introduction to focus more on a part of the body that is more overlooked than not. Understanding the conditions that can impact your wrists is extremely important – preferably before something goes wrong.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Easily the best known – and most common – wrist condition is carpal tunnel syndrome. This condition can affect anyone, of any age, at any point in life. Whether or not you suffer from it is partly based on your genetics, and partly on the way that you use your wrists.
To understand a little more about an oft-referenced but also misunderstood condition, let’s run through a few of the most frequently asked questions.
What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Carpal tunnel syndrome – from here on, referred to as CTS – is a chronic wrist condition that can affect one or both hands. It occurs when the nerve in your wrist – the carpal tunnel nerve – becomes compressed.
Why Does The Nerve Become Compressed?
The most common cause of CTS is Repetitive Strain Injury, better known as RSI. This occurs when the wrist is moved in a particular way, repeatedly, often in the same pattern for days and months. It can be caused by the way you use a keyboard to type, or just how you tend to hold your wrists when you’re sitting at a desk.
Do Any Health Conditions Make CTS More Likely?
Yes, there are a number of conditions which can make you more susceptible to CTS. These include:
- Diabetes – especially if undiagnosed. If you suffer from the symptoms of CTS – as we will discuss – then it’s worth requesting a blood sugar check from your doctor.
- Thyroid conditions.
- High blood pressure.
- Fluid retention – or conditions that can cause fluid retention.
- Autoimmune disorders.
It is completely possible to suffer from CTS without any of these pre-existing conditions, but these do make it more likely.
What Are The Symptoms Of CTS?
The most well-known symptom is pain, but this isn’t always present. In medical presentation, the most identifying sign of CTS is numbness or tingling in the three fingers. You are likely to experience numbness/tingling in the index, middle, or ring fingers – but not the ring finger.
Why Not The Ring Finger?
The ring finger – your pinkie – is governed by a different nerve; the ulnar nerve. It’s perfectly possible to have this nerve become damaged and compressed, resulting in a condition called Ulnar Tunnel Syndrome.
It’s also possible to have both carpal and ulnar tunnel syndromes, though that’s bad luck in the extreme. For the most part, the fingers in affected by numbness of pain will be definitive in concluding which nerve has been compromised:
- Index finger = Carpal
- Middle finger = Carpal
- Ring finger = Either carpal or ulnar
- Little finger = Ulnar
The treatment is much the same for both versions.
What Are The Common Treatments For CTS?
CTS is often treated with a combination approach. Due to its chronic nature, the symptoms have a tendency to come and go which means a variety of different treatments are needed to help cope with the condition. The most common treatments used include:
- Using a wrist splint to keep the wrist straight, which helps to alleviate the compression on the nerve.
- Techniques such as medical acupuncture are often recommended, especially if pain is particularly severe.
- Wrist exercises can be beneficial, but only if the condition is relatively stable.
- Lifestyle changes and self-care to help ease the issues that caused the condition in the first place.
Does Anything Cure CTS?
If deemed necessary, surgery can be performed to loosen the stress on the nerve in question. This is a minor procedure that can be done under a local anesthetic, with varying degrees of success. There is no guaranteed cure for anything, but if the condition is not managed via the above treatment options, surgery may be suggested.
Beyond CTS: Keeping Your Wrists Healthy
If you have never experienced CTS, then it can be tempting to just dismiss the health of your wrists as something that takes care of itself. You could even conclude that, given your current behaviour clearly isn’t causing any problems, you clearly don’t need to worry about what you’re doing to your wrists – they’re holding up just fine.
The truth is that wrist conditions can be pernicious. Right now, the way you’re holding your phone as you read this, that could be causing undue strain on your wrist. Or if you’re on a computer, the way your hands are positioned over the trackpad; that could be harming your wrists. You just don’t know about it yet because it hasn’t reached crisis point yet, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t reach crisis point.
Our wrists are vital for the health of our hands and our general mobility. If your wrist suffers an injury or illness, then it pretty much means your entire arm is going to be out of commission until it heals – and that’s a real pain.
So if you don’t have CTS but want to take wise steps to prevent any future damage to your wrists, what are the best ways of going about this?
Three Wrist Exercises You Can Do Right Now
To get things off to a positive start, why not take a few minutes right now to go through these wrist exercises?
- Flex your wrist downwards, as if you are trying to push your index finger onto the underside of your forearm. When you’ve stretched as far as you can, return your hand upright and stretch out to the tip of your fingers.
- Splay your fingers and thumb as wide as possible, then move your hand in a figure-of-eight motion in the air. Perform five figure-of-eights, then switch to the other hand. Then rest.
- Clasp your hands together as if in prayer, like so –
Keep your hands firmly grasped together, then move your hands – not your arms – in a circular motion. Do this five times, switch to the other hand, then rest.
Think About Your Work Conditions
The way that we work in the modern world is not conducive to good wrist health; in fact, it can be a nightmare. The way we hold our hands above the keyboard is pretty terrible for our wrists, especially if you’re in an armless chair. This forces you to take a lot of the weight of your arm and overall support structure onto your hands, rather than being able to channel it through your entire body.
Taking action on your work situation is vital to ensuring that you’re comfortable and not storing up wrist problems in the future. Working through the following list and making any changes necessary should help to alleviate any concerns:
- Switch to a chair with arms, so you are less reliant on your wrists to support yourself.
- Don’t sit too low; reaching up can compress the tendons in your wrist, leading to future discomfort.
- Avoid situations like this one:
There is absolutely no support for the wrists here; they are taking the full weight of the arms, as well as bending unnaturally so as to allow for typing. It’s very important that there is always a firm surface beneath your wrists, so as to not place undue pressure on them.
- Take breaks. Don’t type for hours at a time without a stop. At least once every half an hour, take a few minutes to stretch your wrists out with the exercises mentioned above.
- It is beneficial to raise your keyboard if you’re going to be typing for long periods of time, even if you intend to take sufficient breaks. This can keep your wrists as level as possible, rather than forcing you to hold them at unnatural angles – and thus potentially cause harm.
When you have taken these steps, then you can be fairly confident that your wrists are going to be protected.
It’s important to note that if you do experience any of the potential symptoms of CTS, or are just in pain when you’re using a computer, then it’s important to seek medical advice. CTS and other wrist conditions tend to be chronic, which means you need to take action on them as soon as they begin to manifest. Don’t wait for things to improve, because there’s a good chance there isn’t going to be an improvement until you take action to help bring such improvement forth.
Your wrists will see you through a lot in life, so it makes sense to look after them. By following the steps above and knowing what to look out for, you can be confident in a pain-free future.