Many people suffering from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) believe that the only treatment option is surgery. That’s not the case anymore, as a recent study indicates that physical therapy – or manual therapy – can be just as effective. Home exercises can also treat Carpal Tunnel to an extent and help manage the pain.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
CTS often results from repetitive motions of the wrist that can arise during computer use or assembly line work, but there are many other contributing factors. The Carpal Tunnel is comprised of the median nerve and Flexor tendons, and CTS occurs when the median nerve becomes squeezed at the wrist. Mild cases usually only show symptoms in the wrist, hand, and forearm, but more severe symptoms can reach all the way up to the shoulder.
- Numbness or pain in hand, forearm, or wrist that eases when you shake or move your fingers
- Tingling or “pins-and-needles” sensation similar to a body part “falling asleep”
- Numbness or pain that gets worse while using your hand or wrist
- Achiness in your forearm
- Finger stiffness when you get up in the morning
Moderate or severe symptoms:
- Reduced strength and grip in your hand
- Accidentally dropping objects
- Difficulty pinching objects between your thumb and pointer finger
- Trouble using your thumb in simple tasks
Physical Therapy for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Cesar Fernandez de las Penas led a study in Spain to compare the effectiveness of physical therapy for CTS to the surgical procedure. He stated that he believes physical therapy should be the first attempt to treat the condition, and only if it fails, should surgery be administered. It was found that PT increased hand and wrist function as effectively as an operation, and the pain was reduced. Physical therapy patients also reported better results than those who had surgery. Most therapy participants were categorized by having mild conditions, but 38% had severe CTS.
Physical Therapy Techniques
The PT techniques that were used in the study are also commonly used in the United States. We’ve listed a few treatment techniques for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome that can be used in PT.
Ultrasound therapy can be very effective in reducing pain and numbness since it raises the temperature of the targeted body tissue. Deep, pulsed ultrasound that is directed at the Carpal Tunnel can also improve hand strength. Consistent ultrasound therapy over multiple weeks can help manage the symptoms of CTS.
These exercises require you to move your fingers in a specific pattern. The goal is to help tendons and nerves slide more smoothly through the tunnel. Gliding exercises can also involve bending of the fingers into different positions. Improving the movement in your Carpal Tunnel will help limit pain and increase your ability to perform everyday tasks.
Graston Technique (GT)
Graston Technique is a non-invasive form of therapy in which the therapist uses a specially designed stainless steel instrument to identify and treat areas with soft tissue damage. The instrument can help break up scar tissue and allow the clinician to get deep enough to stimulate change, but still be sensitive enough for the patient. GT also helps in eliminating pain and restoring range of motion.
Splints and braces are the most common in non-surgical treatment for CTS. By wearing a brace on your wrist and hand, you limit mobility. Wrists that keep an unbent position are likely to feel the least amount of pain. Unbent wrists also maximize the size of the Carpal Tunnel so there is less pressure on the median nerve.
If symptoms persist during and after physical therapy treatment, surgical or medicinal options should be considered. Remember that stretching and performing wrist exercises at home can help with managing pain, but only do the stretches and exercises that your doctor approves.