Tanya Coats Occupational Therapy

Pregnancy and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: why the two go hand in hand?

If you’re currently pregnant or have been pregnant before, there’s a chance that you have experienced symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome such as tingling, pins and needles, and numbness of one or both of your hands. Based on a study from 2015, 31-62% of pregnant women had carpal tunnel syndrome compared to the general population where carpal tunnel syndrome affects around only 3% of people. Most pregnant women are diagnosed within the third trimester of their pregnancy, however the second trimester is also a common time for symptoms to emerge.

So what is carpal tunnel syndrome? Why does it occur so often in women who are pregnant? 

Carpal tunnel syndrome is compression of the median nerve at the wrist. The median nerve provides us with sensation of the palm, thumb and all fingers except the little finger. It also provides input for many muscles in the hand, including ones that provide thumb movement. As a result, when the nerve is compressed you can expect to feel weird sensations such as tingling and numbness across your hand (excluding your little finger), and also weakness with gripping things.

The cause of compression at the wrist is from increased pressure in what is called the ‘carpal tunnel’. This tunnel is a space with the wrist (aka. carpal) bones on the bottom, and a ligament across the top. Within this space runs many tendons (which control hand movements) and the median nerve. For many reasons, there can be increased pressure in this carpal tunnel from things like increased swelling, wrist fractures or arthritis, and lots of time in awkward positions such as a bent wrist when you’re sleeping or driving for long periods.

For women who are pregnant, the usual culprit behind carpal tunnel syndrome is swelling of the hands. With pregnancy comes swollen feet, ankles and also hands. You may have noticed that rings don’t fit your fingers anymore. This swelling increases pressure within the carpal tunnel, which compresses the median nerve and causes carpal tunnel syndrome.

So what can you do?

Given that the carpal tunnel is less compressed when your wrist is straight, try to avoid long periods of bending your wrist (both forwards or backwards). This can be difficult to achieve at night, as we aren’t aware of our bodies during sleep.

  • A splint can be quite helpful to relieve your symptoms
  • Exercises which focus on moving out excess fluid from the hand
  • Compression gloves

It is important to note that the median nerve may be compressed at another point, such as the neck or shoulder region, and that there are other nerves that serve our hands which can become compressed as well. It is important to have a thorough assessment performed to ensure you receive the appropriate treatment.

Many women with carpal tunnel syndrome notice their symptoms gradually improve after the birth of their child, as hand swelling gradually disappears. However, managing the condition during pregnancy is often better to increase your comfort, ensure you sleep well and prevent nerve compression.

Article Reference: Melbourne Hand Rehab

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