Have you ever seen a robotic hand? They can be impressive, but even the best robotic hands can’t match the dexterity, adaptability and sensitivity of the human hand — a true biomechanical marvel.
Unfortunately, sometimes our hands’ functions can be limited by injury or a nerve problem. You’ve likely heard of, or even had carpal tunnel troubles. Another problem we can have with our hands is what we call ulnar nerve dysfunction. Fortunately, if you have issues with your arms or hands, with timely professional treatment, you can recover.
Let’s take a closer look at carpal tunnel syndrome and ulnar nerve dysfunction.
The carpal tunnel is actually a little tunnel or passage of ligament and bones at the base of your hands near the wrists. Nerves and tendons pass through this tunnel.
Irritated tendons or other swelling can press on the nerves in the tunnel. This can cause tingling or numbness in the hand or wrist. Over time, the discomfort can increase and you may have difficulty or pain when trying to grasp objects. The syndrome can also result in sharp pain that shoots through the wrist and up the arm.
The exact cause of carpal tunnel syndrome may be hard to pinpoint, but repetitive hand work, a wrist injury or a disease such as rheumatoid arthritis can cause it. Some people simply have smaller carpal tunnels.
Carpal tunnel syndrome usually occurs only in adults. Women are three times more likely to have carpal tunnel syndrome than men. People with diabetes or other metabolic disorders that affect the nerves making them more susceptible to compression are at higher risk.
The dominant hand is usually affected first and can become the most painful.
The signs usually start gradually. You may notice:
You may notice symptoms first appear during the night. Sleeping with flexed wrists can cause this.
Left untreated, muscles at the base of the thumb begin to waste away. Some with carpal tunnel syndrome may notice they’re no longer able to tell the difference between hot and cold by touch.
At work, you can do on-the-job conditioning, perform stretching exercises, take frequent rest breaks, wear splints to keep wrists straight and use correct posture and wrist position. Wearing fingerless gloves can help keep your hands warm and flexible.
Watch for ways to keep your wrist in a natural position during work.
If you notice the signs of carpal tunnel syndrome, see your health care professional as soon as you can. It isn’t an emergency, but delaying treatment can reduce chances for a full recovery.
If the underlying cause of the problem is diabetes or arthritis, your health care professional will treat those conditions first.
Carpal tunnel syndrome treatment usually starts with resting the affected hand and wrist for at least two weeks. You’ll want to avoid activities that may worsen symptoms. The wrist may be immobilized in a splint to avoid further damage. If there is inflammation, cool packs can help reduce swelling.
To ease short-term symptoms, try aspirin, ibuprofen or another nonprescription pain reliever. For mild symptoms, diuretics (water pills) can reduce swelling.
Your health care professional may suggest a wrist injection of a corticosteroid or lidocaine. Prednisone can be taken by mouth. This will relieve nerve pressure and provide immediate, temporary relief.
Stretching and strengthening exercises can help if symptoms have subsided. The exercises may be supervised by a physical therapist or an occupational therapist.
Carpal tunnel release is a common surgery usually recommended if symptoms last for six months. The procedure involves cutting the band of tissue around the wrist to reduce pressure on the median nerve. This outpatient surgery is done under local anesthesia.
What we call ulnar neuropathy happens when there’s damage to your ulnar nerve, which crosses the elbow just under the skin and travels down your arm. The damage often destroys the nerve covering (myelin sheath) or part of the nerve (axon) and slows or prevents nerve signaling.
Damage to the ulnar nerve can be caused by:
Temporary pain and tingling of this nerve can occur if the elbow is hit, producing the experience of hitting your “funny bone” at the elbow.
With this condition you may notice:
Avoid prolonged pressure on your elbow or palm.
Knowing the cause will allow appropriate treatment. Sometimes, no treatment is needed. Otherwise:
If the cause of the dysfunction can be found and treated, the chances of a full recovery are good.
As with carpal tunnel syndrome, early diagnosis and treatment increases the chances of successful treatment. If you have concerns about carpal tunnel syndrome, ulnar neuropathy or another problem with your arms or hands, promptly see your health care professional.