According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), women are three times more likely than men to develop carpal tunnel syndrome. While drugs and surgery are options for those with carpal tunnel syndrome, there are methods devised to work with your body that can have lasting value, without risking adverse side effects.
Kathryn Merrow, who is known as The Pain Relief Coach, agreed to tell us more about carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) and how it can be treated without resorting to surgery. Kathryn’s done well over 25,000 sessions as a Neuromuscular Massage Therapist and has had significant advanced training. She has personally overcome migraines and scoliosis, along with other assorted injuries and pains, so she has firsthand experience with natural healing.
As The Pain Relief Coach, Kathryn helps people understand why they have physical pain and the simple, natural steps they can take to get rid of their pain so that they can feel and function better. She is the author of “Head Pain Natural Relief,” and is currently working on other natural pain relief books. Below, Kathryn answers my questions about CTS:
AgingCare: Kathryn, what exactly is a carpal tunnel?
Kathryn: The carpal tunnel is a passageway in your wrist that is filled with finger tendons and the median nerve as they pass through your wrist to your hand. The opening is surrounded by carpal bones on the back side and a tough ligament on the palm side. That passageway, or tunnel, is packed full, but it works just fine normally.
AgingCare: Is CTS ever misdiagnosed?
Kathryn: Yes! Natural laws govern how your body works. These laws state that if something occurs in one part of your body, something must happen elsewhere to compensate for the first occurrence. Many times the compensation causes pain, maybe in your hand, arm, wrist or elsewhere. Maybe it’s CTS. Maybe it’s not.
True CTS can be caused by a few different things:
- Diabetes: If you are diabetic, hopefully you are being treated by a doctor. Both hands will be involved because your whole system is involved.
- Pregnancy: Swelling in the tissues and weight gain create less space in the carpal tunnel and causes pressure on the nerve.
- Injury or damage to the wrist: Injury can also alter the space in the tunnel and cause pressure on the nerve. Nerves don’t like pressure. They react by giving you symptoms like tingling or pain.
- Some people may have a small carpal tunnel: However, it seems to me that if that is the case they would have symptoms their whole life. Perhaps weight gain makes them more likely to have hand or wrist pain.
Many people have asked me if they have CTS because they have pain in their hand or arm. Almost always the answer is no. The median nerve can be compressed by tight muscles in many places as it travels from your neck all the way to your hand. The nerve doesn’t like pressure and so it causes nervy symptoms in your hand or arm. Or maybe you aren’t having nervy pain at all. You might be feeling the discomfort of tight muscles in your hand or arm.
AgingCare: This seems like a good place to define the word syndrome. A syndrome is a collection of symptoms, right?
Kathryn: Yes. Symptoms are things like pain, tingling, numbness. A syndrome is not a disease; it’s a bunch of symptoms.
AgingCare: What are typical causes of hand, wrist and arm pain?
Kathryn: Most of the day, we have our hands and head in front of our bodies. This strains the muscles in the upper back and the back of the arm. Overstretched muscles go into their own form of contraction and cause muscle pain symptoms. For example, when the muscles in your arm become overstretched and strained because you are stretching to reach your computer mouse, you get pain in your carpal tunnel area (hand, wrist and arm).
Poor posture can cause hand, wrist and arm pain, too. Most of our days consist of having our head in front of our body. This is similar to walking around with a bowling ball hanging off your neck. This forward head posture causes muscle stress, headaches, TMJ pain and dysfunction, migraines, pain in the back and pain in the carpal tunnel area. Besides straining your neck and back muscles, poor posture with a forward head and rounded forward shoulders causes pressure on the median nerve at the neck.
If you have carpal tunnel symptoms or hand, wrist and arm pain, there is a very good chance that you also have other complaints, such as pain in your head, jaw, neck and back.
AgingCare: Are there drug-free, non-surgical alternatives to conventional medical treatments?
Kathryn: Attaining muscular balance is the answer. When your muscles are in balance, you won’t have as much pain or discomfort. To overcome the emotional, physical and chemical assaults of living in an unbalanced world, we must do all we can to be in balance. And getting that balance back is possible at any age. It is more challenging if you are older and have been spending too much time sitting, slumping or lounging in out-of-balance postures, but there are still natural ways to get rid of your hand and arm pain. To overcome your carpal tunnel area pain, you must do your best to have balance in your body.
AgingCare: What about wrist braces for pain relief?
Kathryn: The purpose of a brace is to prevent you from working or sleeping with your wrist in a bent position. The neutral position for your wrist—and the one we should use the most—is the straight wrist.
If your carpal tunnel symptoms are worse in the morning because you sleep with your hands and wrists curled up, wear a brace at night. If your hand, arm or wrist is more painful during the day, wear a brace during the day for the activities that bother it most.
The purpose of the wrist brace is to help you remember not to overextend or stress your wrist. It will restrict your movements and make it more difficult for you to aggravate your carpal tunnel area. But, if you wear a brace all day and all night, the muscles around your wrist will weaken.
AgingCare: Are there exercises that people can do?
Kathryn: Yes. First note that when you practice these movements, always move thoughtfully and slowly and pay attention to any sensations you may feel. The goal is to create a nice stretch, but not pain. If you haven’t moved in these ways for many years, your body will have to remember how to do it again. Take your time and go slowly.
When you are watching television, don’t just sit there. Move your wrist, arms and hands in many different positions. Rotate them and pretend you are a ballet dancer, gracefully swaying your hands and arms.
Stretch your hands and arms in the opposite direction of the one you are usually in. The muscles in the front of your body get short and tight, and we want them to be long and relaxed. Stretching in the opposite direction helps the muscles become longer and more relaxed.
Open your hands. Palm up and palm down and thumb up. Stretch your fingers while keeping your wrist straight.
AgingCare: I know that you have many more suggestions for these exercises on your website. What about neck muscles? Can they influence CTS paint?
Kathryn: There are two pain symptoms and both can be caused by the same set of muscles, even though the symptoms are not close together. Carpal tunnel symptoms and "knots" in your upper back (muscle spasms between your shoulder blade and spine) can both be caused by muscles on the sides of the neck called scalenes.
This cause of both carpal tunnel symptoms and "knots" is quite common but almost always overlooked. It's possible that you have both pain symptoms caused by the same muscles. Therapeutic massage can often help with this type of pain.
AgingCare: It seems that mindfulness with posture, targeted exercises, therapeutic massage, as well as—for some—wrist braces, can go a long way toward helping CTS. For more about carpal tunnel syndrome pain relief, visit Kathryn’s website. As always, see your doctor if you aren’t progressing. You may need assitance from a physical therapist or other interventions.
Thank you, Kathryn Merrow, for sharing so much about pain therapy with us!