Whenever I see a bank teller or cashier wearing a wrist brace, my first thought is that they’re suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome. The nature of their work is repetitious and can be hard on their wrists and hands, and carpal tunnel syndrome is a common result.
What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is a condition in which your median nerve becomes entrapped. This nerve runs throughout your arm, but near your wrist, it runs through what’s called the carpal tunnel, which is a narrow passageway at the base of your hand and wrist. When the tendons, ligaments, or tissue becomes irritated and swollen, the nerve becomes squeezed, causing symptoms not only in your wrist, but also in your hand.
The most common symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome are numbness and tingling in the palm of your affected hand, which may extend to the thumb, index, and middle finger. People with CTS also describe burning, itching, pain, weakness, and in severe cases inability to use the affected hand and fingers. As with most nerve-related conditions, the symptoms tend to be worse during the night. In fact, many people with CTS describe early symptoms as a sensation of pins and needles or numbness that wake them up at night.
While carpal tunnel syndrome can be caused by a trauma, such as a broken bone or sprained wrist, the most common cause of this condition is performing repetitive motions. Twisting and turning your hand, working at a cash register or computer, or the use of hand tools are common culprits. However, being pregnant, having diabetes, an underactive thyroid, an overactive pituitary, or rheumatoid arthritis can also raise your risk for CTS.
How Can It Be Treated?
Traditional treatments for CTS include splinting the wrist (especially at night), avoiding overuse activities, physical therapy, Vitamin B6 supplementation, and over-the-counter or prescription medications for pain and inflammation. In some cases surgery is an option, in which the carpal tunnel is opened up to make more space for the nerve.
Acupuncture can also be an appropriate treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome. In a 2017 study reported by the NIH (National Institutes of Health), researchers found that acupuncture produced measurable improvements in symptoms that the patients were experiencing. The results showed that acupuncture treatments exerted effects both locally, as well as in the pain center of the brain.
In Chinese medicine, carpal tunnel syndrome is diagnosed as something called a Bi (pronounced Bee) syndrome, which means that there’s some kind of obstruction in the affected joint. This simply means that the circulation of blood and the transmission of nerve impulses are blocked. An acupuncturist would further diagnose your CTS by the state of your overall health and the characteristics of your symptoms. For example, you may have more pain than numbness, your symptoms may be aggravated by changes in the weather, or they may come and go. Your CTS may feel better with the application of heat, pressure, ice, or being elevated. All of these are clues as to how to best treat your particular presentation of CTS.
In Chinese medicine, acupuncture is the first line of treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome. Your practitioner may use electro-acupuncture, which provides a painless electrical current to the needles to enhance effectiveness. They may also prescribe an herbal formula, perform massage-like Tui Na, or recommend some at home rest or exercises as a part of your treatment plan. Their strategy for your treatment and the healing tools that they use will depend on the nature of your symptoms and your overall health.
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