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Carpal Tunnel Syndrome During Pregnancy

Many women experience carpal tunnel syndrome during pregnancy. Here is what you should know about it and how to cope with the pain.

Published October 22, 2020

by Rory Patel

Medically reviewed by Kristy Goodman

Obstetrician-Gynecologist Physician Assistant, MS, MPH, PA-C

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Being uncomfortable, having trouble sleeping, and being unable to follow a daily routine are problems women experience during pregnancy. As if that’s not enough, some women also develop very discomforting carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) during pregnancy.

Though CTS can get on your nerves (quite literally), you can manage it effectively if you do your research correctly. And to help you with that, here’s everything you need to know about the syndrome.1

What is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

The carpal tunnel is a tunnel in the wrist area between the ligaments and bones. It consists of a narrow passageway towards the side of the palm through which the median nerve runs. If the median nerve, which runs from the neck through the shoulders to the fingers, gets compressed inside the carpal tunnel, it results in carpal tunnel syndrome.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is associated with numb wrists and fingers and can cause discomfort, making day-to-day activities difficult to handle. It can occur in one or both hands. Up to 35% of women are reported to experience pain or weakness in their wrists during pregnancy, usually in the third trimester.3

Carpal tunnel syndrome will likely affect people with underlying conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, thyroid, and autoimmune disorders. While experts are not sure what causes carpal tunnel syndrome in pregnancy, it is believed that it results from fluid retention and hormone-related swelling.3,8

What Increases the Risk of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome During Pregnancy?

Here are conditions that may increase the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome during pregnancy:9

  • Being Overweight or Obese – Women who are overweight during pregnancy are diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome more frequently. Hence, it is vital to keep your weight in check and get as much exercise during pregnancy as possible.
  • Diabetes or Hypertension – Diabetes and hypertension during pregnancy can lead to swelling and fluid retention – conditions that further give rise to the syndrome. So, be conscious of what you’re putting in your body and try relaxation therapies to release stress.
  • Past Pregnancies – Relaxin, the hormone which expands the cervix and pelvis for childbirth, may be present in higher amounts during subsequent pregnancies. And this can cause carpal tunnel inflammation.

Symptoms of Carpal Tunnel During Pregnancy

Here are some common symptoms that you may experience if you have carpal tunnel syndrome:

  • Tingling sensation and numbness in wrist, hand, and fingers
  • Increased discomfort in hand(s) at night
  • Pain and throbbing sensation
  • Swelling in fingers and palm
  • Trouble doing motor activities
  • Trouble gripping objects firmly
  • Radiating pain in arms and shoulders
  • Weakness

How is CTS Diagnosed in Pregnancy?

The diagnosis of CTS during pregnancy is easy and safe. Usually, doctors diagnose the problem based on the symptoms you mention to them. However, your doctor may also conduct a physical examination using electrodiagnostic tests to ensure that the problem is correctly diagnosed.4

A nerve conduction velocity test consists of thin needles (electrodes) with wires taped to your skin. The electrodes analyze the signals received from your nerves. And since the damaged median nerve tends to slow down these signals, the doctor can confirm the syndrome if the electrical signals are slow.4

Tinel’s test is another test you can do to identify if the median nerve is damaged. Your doctor can conduct this test separately or as a part of the electrodiagnostic test. In this test, your doctor will tap on the affected area. If you feel a tingling sensation, your doctor can confirm that the nerve is compressed.4

Treatment of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in Pregnancy

The carpal tunnel syndrome treatment should begin as soon as you are diagnosed.5 Also, make sure that a trusted medical practitioner suggests the treatment. To start with, here are some options for treatment:

Non-surgical methods:

  • Use of cold compresses – Use cold compresses if you notice swelling or redness in your wrist. Also, take a break from all activities if you notice these symptoms, and rest your hand(s) as much as possible.
  • Splint – Your doctor may suggest wearing a brace while you sleep at night because that’s when the syndrome causes the most discomfort.
  • Therapies – In addition to pain relief drugs, you may also opt for acupuncture and chiropractic therapies.
  • Yoga – Yoga is highly recommended since it improves grip and strengthens the muscles.
  • Compression gloves – Compression gloves are known to regulate blood circulation and maintain oxygen supply. And this improves mobility, reduces stiffness, and makes your everyday activities pain-free.6

Surgical Methods:

Your doctor may recommend CTS surgery if your symptoms are severe or persist after pregnancy. The surgery involves cutting off a ligament, which reduces the pressure on the median nerve. The surgeon will follow one of these two methods:

  • Open Release Surgery – This procedure to treat CTS involves making a 2-inch incision into the wrist and then enlarging the carpal tunnel by cutting the transverse carpal ligament. This surgery is quick and can be done on an outpatient basis.
  • Endoscopic Surgery – Endoscopic surgery is associated with a faster recovery. It involves making one or two half-inch incisions near the wrist. After that, your surgeon will insert a camera connected to a tube to observe the tendons, the ligaments, and the nerves. Then, as required, your surgeon will cut the transverse carpal ligament using a small knife inserted through the tube.

The ligaments grow back together after the surgery, allowing more space than previously. Based on underlying conditions, some people may experience complications after surgery such as infection or pain. If that’s the case, visit your doctor for further treatment.

Breastfeeding Tips for Women with CTS

Since CTS symptoms may continue even after pregnancy, ensure you avoid bending your wrist when breastfeeding the baby. Here are a few more tips you should follow:

  • Sit up straight on a supportive chair and place a pillow under the baby for support.
  • Support the baby’s head using your arm instead of your hand and wrist.
  • When you lay down to breastfeed the baby, put a pillow between your legs and one behind your head to be more comfortable. Use a small rolled-up towel to support the baby’s head instead of using your hand.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a commonly occurring problem in pregnancy, and the symptoms, in most cases, disappear within a few months after delivery. But to maintain a healthy routine, you must consult a doctor and avoid further discomfort. Pregnancy is a blissful period in women’s lives. Take the utmost care of your health to enjoy it and create the most beautiful memories.

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Rory is a passionate entrepreneur, fascinated by the workings of the human body and natural solutions for common health problems. Read more

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