What is carpal tunnel syndrome?
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition that occurs as a result of swelling around the nerves of the wrist. It can cause numbness, tingling or pain in one or both wrists.
Pregnant women are particularly prone to the disorder, with about 3 to 5 of every 10 women experiencing symptoms during pregnancy.
The carpal tunnel is a corridor that contains tendons and a nerve (the median nerve), that run through the base of your hand. The carpel tunnel can swell and press against this sensitive nerve, causing pain.
While pregnancy is one cause, other common causes include arthritis or repetitive hand movements, which can occur in professionals such as musicians, office workers and manual labourers.
For more information on carpal tunnel syndrome unrelated to pregnancy, click here.
How does pregnancy affect carpal tunnel syndrome?
When you are pregnant, your hormone levels trigger fluid retention, which can cause swelling. This swelling can, in turn, push against the median nerve in the carpal tunnel – increasing pressure in the carpal tunnel and sometimes causing pain in your wrist and hand.
The condition is more common in the third trimester, but it can also happen in the first 2 trimesters or after the birth. In most cases, symptoms will pass after your baby is born.
How do I know if I have carpal tunnel syndrome?
Common signs and symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include:
- Pain: especially in the wrist, thumb, index finger or middle finger. Pain may worsen when you move your hand or if the weather is particularly hot. It’s also more likely to occur at night.
- Numbness: especially in the thumb, index finger or middle finger. A particularly bad case can result in difficulty holding on to or picking things up, and you may feel clumsy.
- Tingling: especially in the thumb, index finger or middle finger. Tingling may worsen when you move your hand or if the weather is particularly hot. It’s also more likely to occur at night.
- Weakness: stress on the nerve in the carpal tunnel can cause weakness in the thumb, index finger or palm of your hand.
The intensity of symptoms can vary from mild irritation, to occasional soreness, to serious pain. Symptoms may stop you from sleeping or make it difficult to perform regular tasks such as working, getting dressed, cooking or caring for your baby.
Symptoms can be worsened by:
- repeating the same hand movements frequently
- keeping your hands in the same position for an extended time
- putting weight on straightened arms
How is carpel tunnel syndrome treated?
There are safe and effective treatments for carpel tunnel syndrome. Your choice of treatment will depend on several factors, including the severity of your symptoms and the stage of your pregnancy. Talk to your doctor if you think you may have carpal tunnel syndrome.
Some pregnant women find that pain is reduced by simple measures, such as:
- elevating your hands when you’re resting or not using them
- keeping your wrists in a neutral position (not bent forwards or backwards) during the day, and as much as possible while you’re sleeping
- maintaining good posture in your arms and wrists while working at a desk
- taking breaks every 20 minutes while working at a desk
- avoiding activities that strain your wrist
You can also reduce the swelling by applying an ice pack on your inner wrist or by placing your hand in cold water for between 30 seconds and 2 minutes. If your symptoms worsen, do not repeat.
Treatment options include physiotherapy or occupational therapy. This may involve fitting you with a brace or splint to keep your wrist in the best position to reduce strain. These splints must be adjusted to your specific wrist in order to be protective and supportive. Your therapist will be able to tell you how best to protect your wrist at home, including exercises and resting positions.
Your doctor may recommend medicine to reduce the amount of fluid retained in your body, or in certain circumstances may offer you an injection to reduce swelling.
Will I still have pain after my baby is born?
Carpal tunnel syndrome tends to ease, and often disappears, after birth. If you still have pain after your baby is born, you may need to change the way you use your wrist. This might impact on how you use your hand to hold and care for your baby, including how you feed your baby.
Speak to your physiotherapist, occupational therapist or lactation consultant for strategies and tips on how to minimise strain on your wrist while holding your newborn. Try to use a pram where possible to give your arm a chance to rest. It is also important to continue using your brace or splint if you have one.
While carpal tunnel syndrome is common during pregnancy, 19 out of 20 women will recover within the first 6 weeks after the baby is born. If your symptoms persist after your baby is 6 weeks old, speak to your doctor.
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Last reviewed: November 2020