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Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: Should I Have Surgery?
You may want to have a say in this decision, or you may simply want to follow your doctor's recommendation. Either way, this information will help you understand what your choices are so that you can talk to your doctor about them.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: Should I Have Surgery?
Get the facts
- Have surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Don't have surgery. Use rest, ice, medicine, wrist splints, and new ways to do some tasks.
Key points to remember
- Home treatments may be all you need if you've had mild symptoms for a short time. You may be able to treat carpal tunnel syndrome with rest, ice, medicine, and wrist splints. You also can learn to do some tasks in a way that doesn't hurt your wrist. Surgery may be a better choice if you've had very bad symptoms for a long time.
- Surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome may give you only a little relief if your symptoms are caused by other health problems, such as rheumatoid arthritis, hypothyroidism, or diabetes. Treating these problems often makes carpal tunnel symptoms get better or go away. But in some cases, you still might need surgery.
- Sometimes surgery is needed to prevent lasting nerve damage. You will likely have a nerve test to see if you need surgery.
- Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome in pregnant women often go away after childbirth. Unless your symptoms are very bad, you may want to wait and see if your symptoms go away after you have the baby.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a nerve problem that causes tingling, numbness, weakness, or pain in the fingers, thumb, or palm, and sometimes the forearm. These symptoms are caused by pressure on a nerve (median nerve) in the wrist (carpal tunnel).
This problem is often linked to hand and wrist motions that you do a lot. These are called repetitive motions.
Swelling or fluid retention in the wrist—which can happen during pregnancy or because of a health problem—also can cause carpal tunnel symptoms or make them worse.
Severe carpal tunnel syndrome that lasts a long time can lead to permanent damage to the median nerve. This can make it hard for you to use your hand.
You may have:
- Weak thumb muscles. This makes it hard for you to grip or hold objects.
- Loss of feeling and ability to use your fingers and hand well.
Surgery reduces the pressure on the median nerve in the wrist. The doctor cuts a ligament to relieve the pressure on the nerve.
The surgery is called carpal tunnel release. It can be done in one of two ways:
- Open surgery: Your doctor makes a small cut (incision) in the palm of your hand.
- Endoscopic surgery: Your doctor makes one small incision in the wrist, or one small incision in the wrist and one in the palm. He or she puts a lighted tube—called an endoscope, or scope—into the incision. Surgical tools are put in along with the scope.
You may decide to have surgery if you've had very bad symptoms for a long time and other treatments haven't helped.
Sometimes surgery is needed to prevent lasting nerve damage. You will likely have a nerve test to see if you need surgery.
Most people who have surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome have less or no pain and numbness in their hand and better hand function after surgery.1 It's not clear how long you should try nonsurgical treatment before considering surgery. But after people who have severe carpal tunnel syndrome have surgery, they typically have fewer symptoms and better hand function than people who continue using wrist splints or a combination of medicine and hand therapy.2
Both types of surgery—open and endoscopic—work equally well to improve symptoms.3 Talk to your doctor about which surgery might be best for you.
Major problems from surgery can happen, but they are rare. About 1 person out of 100 has a major problem after surgery, such as nerve damage, while 99 out of 100 people don't.3
You can try several home treatments to help relieve your symptoms. This may be all you need to do for mild symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. Doctors suggest that you try these treatments for 3 to 12 months before you think about having surgery. It often helps to try several treatments at the same time.
You may try to:
- Rest your hand for 1 or 2 weeks. Stop activities that hurt.
- Put ice on the palm of your hand and wrist for 10 to 15 minutes at a time.
- Take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as naproxen or ibuprofen. Studies haven't shown NSAIDs to be effective for carpal tunnel syndrome, but they may help relieve your symptoms. Talk to your doctor before taking NSAIDs. They can cause side effects.
- Change the way you do certain hand motions.
- Wear a wrist splint. It's usually worn at night, but you can wear it during the day.
- You can work with a physical therapist to learn how to do activities in a new way.
- If these home care treatments don't help, you may be able to take corticosteroid shots or pills to improve your symptoms.
- You can try yoga.
- Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome in pregnant women often go away after childbirth. Unless your symptoms are very bad, you may want to put off having surgery and see if your symptoms go away after you have the baby.
Rest, ice, and other home treatments may be all you need if you've had mild symptoms for a short time.
Your doctor may also suggest that you try wrist splints or corticosteroids to avoid or delay surgery. Splints are easy and inexpensive, and there is little risk to trying them. Studies show that:1
- If you have very bad symptoms, a splint may not help your pain as well as surgery could.
- Corticosteroid shots and pills give short-term relief from symptoms.
Your doctor might recommend surgery if:
- You've had very bad symptoms for a long time, so you're at risk of having lasting nerve damage.
- Test show that you have nerve damage.
- A wrist splint, medicines, and other treatments haven't helped your symptoms.
Compare your options
What is usually involved?
What are the benefits?
What are the risks and side effects?
- You have local anesthetic, so you are awake but won't have pain.
- You go home on the same day.
- You need to avoid heavy use of your hand for up to 3 months.
- You may be able to go back to work after a couple of days if surgery is on the hand you don't use as much. If surgery is on the hand you write with and use most often, it may be 6 to 12 weeks before you can work again after open surgery or 4 weeks after endoscopic surgery.
- Surgery can make symptoms get better or go away for most people.
- It can prevent lasting nerve damage.
- Surgery doesn't always help.
- Your symptoms may come back.
- Major problems from surgery, such as infection or a problem from anesthesia, are rare.
- You can try several home
treatments to ease symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, including:
- A wrist splint.
- New ways of doing tasks.
- You may get corticosteroids.
- If you are pregnant, you can wait to see if the problem goes away after childbirth.
- You don't have the risks of surgery.
- You may not have to take time off from work.
- You don't have the expense of surgery.
- Other treatments might not work.
- If you have very bad symptoms and wait too long, you could have lasting nerve damage.
- Temporary increase in pain, or a small chance of nerve damage, after a corticosteroid shot.
Personal stories about surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome
These stories are based on information gathered from health professionals and consumers. They may be helpful as you make important health decisions.
One of the most annoying things about my carpal tunnel syndrome is the night pain in my hands. If I don't wear the splints, it wakes me up almost every night. But with the splints, I can get a good night's sleep, and my doctor says that my thumb and hand strength are not too bad. I'm nervous about any kind of surgery, so when my doctor said it would be okay to wait awhile, I said, "Great." If the splints stop working, though, I'll probably be back in my doctor's office!
Dave, age 55
I own a landscaping business, and a few months ago I started having a lot of pain when putting in backyard fences. Then the pain started to wake me up at night and keep me awake. My doctor said I had a classic case of carpal tunnel syndrome. I tried some of the home treatments that she recommended, and the problem didn't get any worse, but it didn't get any better, either. So I went back and asked about surgery. It sounds like the surgery has a good chance of taking care of the problem, so I'm going to give it a try. When you own your own company, it's too expensive to keep missing work. But I'll have to wait till the slow season, because I'll have to take a few weeks' break to recover.
Javier, age 46
I thought for sure that I was going to have to have surgery for my carpal tunnel. I'm an order-taker for a mail-order catalog company, which means I type a lot, and my symptoms were really getting bad. My fingers were numb, so I kept hitting the wrong keys on the keyboard and making errors. The pain was waking me up at night, and it was even starting to hurt during the day. I went to my boss and the human resources manager at work, and together we worked out a job-sharing arrangement that lets me take orders for part of the day and work in the mail room the rest of the day. I am going to see how that helps, along with the exercises and the splints.
Catherine, age 40
When I dropped my third coffee cup in a week, I decided it was time to do something about my hands. I've had this carpal tunnel problem for a couple of years now, and I'm tired of wearing the splints and getting occasional steroid shots in my wrists. My doctor says that whether I have surgery or not is really up to me at this point. I think I'm ready for it.
Danitra, age 36
What matters most to you?
Your personal feelings are just as important as the medical facts. Think about what matters most to you in this decision, and show how you feel about the following statements.
Reasons to have surgery
Reasons not to have surgery
I tried other treatments, but my pain is still bad.
I can live with the pain while I give other treatments some more time to work.
I don't mind having surgery if it can get rid of my symptoms.
I just don't want to have surgery.
I'm not worried about the small chance of problems from surgery.
I don't want to take even a small chance of something going wrong with surgery.
I'm afraid of having lasting nerve damage from carpal tunnel syndrome.
I'm not worried that I'll have lasting nerve damage from carpal tunnel syndrome.
My other important reasons:
My other important reasons:
Where are you leaning now?
Now that you've thought about the facts and your feelings, you may have a general idea of where you stand on this decision. Show which way you are leaning right now.
NOT having surgery
What else do you need to make your decision?
Check the facts
Home treatments may be all I need to get rid of mild symptoms from carpal tunnel syndrome.
- TrueThat's right. Home treatments often work for mild symptoms from carpal tunnel syndrome. You can try rest, ice, and doing tasks in a new way.
- FalseSorry, that's not right. Home treatments often work for mild symptoms from carpal tunnel syndrome. You can try rest, ice, and doing tasks in a new way.
- I'm not sureIt may help to go back and read "Get the Facts." Home treatments often work for mild symptoms from carpal tunnel syndrome. You can try rest, ice, and doing tasks in a new way.
Surgery may not be a good choice if my symptoms are caused by pregnancy or a health problem.
- TrueThat's right. Symptoms often go away after childbirth or after treatment for the health problem.
- FalseNo, that's not right. Symptoms often go away after childbirth or after treatment for the health problem.
- I'm not sureIt may help to go back and read "Get the Facts." Symptoms often go away after childbirth or treatment for the problem.
I have a good chance of improving or getting rid of my symptoms with surgery.
- TrueThat's right. Surgery is likely to improve or get rid of your symptoms. But it doesn't work all the time.
- FalseThat's not right. Surgery is likely to improve or get rid of your symptoms. But it doesn't work all the time.
- I'm not sureIt might help to go back and read "Get the Facts." Surgery is likely to help. But it doesn't work all the time.
Decide what's next
Do you understand the options available to you?
Are you clear about which benefits and side effects matter most to you?
Do you have enough support and advice from others to make a choice?
How sure do you feel right now about your decision?
Use the following space to list questions, concerns, and next steps.
Here's a record of your answers. You can use it to talk with your doctor or loved ones about your decision.
|Primary Medical Reviewer||Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Herbert von Schroeder, MD, MSc, FRCSC - Hand and Microvascular Surgery|
- Ashworth N (2011). Carpal tunnel syndrome, search date July 2011. BMJ Clinical Evidence. Available online: http://www.clinicalevidence.com
- Huisstede BM, et al. (2010). Carpal tunnel syndrome. Part II: Effectiveness of surgical treatments—A systematic review. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 91(7): 1005–1024.
- Scholten RJPM, et al. (2007). Surgical treatment options for carpal tunnel syndrome. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (4).
Last Updated:October 2, 2012