Informed Patient Tutorial
Copyright 2012 by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

Informed Patient - Carpal Tunnel Release Surgery

Introduction

Welcome to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons' Informed Patient Program. These online learning modules have been developed by orthopaedic surgeons to help you better understand your condition and the treatments your doctor recommends.

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Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common condition that causes numbness and pain in the hand. It affects up to 10 percent of the population and is more common in women.

For most people, carpal tunnel syndrome will worsen without some form of treatment. When treated early on, carpal tunnel symptoms may be relieved with simple measures. Your doctor may consider surgery if nonsurgical treatments do not relieve your hand pain and numbness.

This learning module will explain carpal tunnel syndrome and what treatments may be used to relieve the pain. It will discuss some common causes of carpal tunnel syndrome, as well as some of the nonsurgical treatment options you may have tried. It will then explain why you may need surgery and what you can expect from the procedure.

There are 10 parts to this learning module. As you work through them, you will be asked whether you understand the information, and you will be reminded to write down any questions you still have. This way you will be able to bring your questions with you the next time you see your doctor.

The learning module includes the following sections:

  1. Your Hand and Wrist: The anatomy of the hand and wrist is explained.
  2. Causes: Many things can contribute to the development of carpal tunnel syndrome. This section describes some of these.
  3. Symptoms: This section explains some of the signs to look for in carpal tunnel syndrome.
  4. Diagnosis: This section explains some of the ways carpal tunnel syndrome is diagnosed.
  5. Nonsurgical Treatment: There are many nonsurgical options to treat carpal tunnel syndrome. Some of these are explained in this section.
  6. Surgical Treatment: This section describes some of the aspects of surgical treatment.
  7. Your Carpal Tunnel Release Surgery: This section reviews what you may expect during surgery.
  8. After Surgery: This section explains what you may expect after surgery.
  9. Risks and Complications: Some risks and complications can be expected with any surgery. This section outlines some of the most common complications of carpal tunnel release surgery.
  10. Conclusion: This section sums up the information and provides you with an opportunity to add more questions for your doctor.

Your Hand and Wrist

The carpal tunnel is a narrow, tunnel-like passageway in your wrist, about an inch wide. The bottom and sides of this tunnel are formed by small wrist bones (called carpal bones). The top of the tunnel is covered by a strong band of connective tissue called the transverse carpal ligament.

Travelling through this narrow tunnel are the tendons that bend the fingers, and the nerve (median nerve) that provides feeling to a good portion of the hand.

Do You Understand?

1. Do you understand the anatomy of the carpal tunnel?

Please take a moment now to write down any questions you still have about the anatomy of the wrist and carpal tunnel.

Bring your questions to your orthopaedic surgeon at your next appointment.

Causes of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when the tissues surrounding the tendons in your wrist swell or thicken, and put pressure on the median nerve. These tissues are called the synovium. The synovium lubricates the tendons and makes it easier to move your fingers.

This thickening of the synovium occupies more of the small space of the carpal tunnel, and over time, crowds the nerve.

In addition, tightness of the transverse carpal ligament can constrict the carpal tunnel space. This crowding can result in hand pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness.

In many cases, there is no single cause for the development of carpal tunnel syndrome. Many things can cause crowding in the carpal tunnel.

Heredity

Carpal tunnels are simply smaller in some people. This trait can run in families.

Weight

Being overweight may contribute to narrowing in the carpal tunnel.

Repetitive Use

Repeating the same hand motions over a prolonged period of time can cause swelling and inflammation in the carpal tunnel.

Hormonal Changes

Pregnancy and menopause can create hormonal changes that cause water retention and swelling.

Medical Conditions

Diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and thyroid disease are examples of medical conditions that can cause swelling.

Do You Understand?

1. Do you understand how carpal tunnel syndrome happens?

2. Do you understand the factors that can contribute to the development of carpal tunnel syndrome?

Please take a moment now to write down any questions you still have about the causes of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Bring your questions to your orthopaedic surgeon at your next appointment.

Symptoms

Symptoms usually begin gradually, without a specific injury. The thumb, index, and middle fingers are most frequently affected. There may also be symptoms on the side of the fourth finger that is closest to the third.

Typical areas of numbness with carpal tunnel syndrome

The most common symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include:

  • Night pain or aching
  • Numbness, tingling and pain in the hand
  • Pain in the forearm that may travel toward the shoulder
  • A feeling of electric shock in the fingers or hand

Symptoms may occur during the day with certain activities, and are often experienced at night.

Many people report that activities such as driving, talking on the phone, and reading the newspaper bring on symptoms.

Moving or shaking the hands often makes them feel better.

Early on, symptoms may come and go, but over time they can become more constant.

You may develop a feeling of clumsiness with your hands, making fine movements difficult or causing you to drop things.

Do You Understand?

1. Do you understand the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome?

Please take a moment now to write down any questions you still have about the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Bring your questions to your orthopaedic surgeon at your next appointment.

Diagnosis

Orthopaedic Evaluation

Your doctor will determine whether you have carpal tunnel syndrome by listening to your description of symptoms and performing physical examination tests.

Orthopaedic Evaluation

Your doctor may tap lightly over the median nerve at the palm side of your wrist to see whether it causes tingling in any fingers. This is called the Tinel sign.

Orthopaedic Evaluation

Your doctor may ask you to relax your wrists with your fingers pointing down. This is called the Phalen maneuver.

Orthopaedic Evaluation

To test muscle strength, your doctor may have you push your thumb across your palm.

Orthopaedic Evaluation

Your doctor may press down on the median nerve at your wrist to see if it causes numbness or tingling.

Orthopaedic Evaluation

Because the fingertips are sometimes less sensitive with carpal tunnel syndrome, your doctor may check whether you can feel two pinpoint light touches on the tips of your fingers.

Tests

In addition to the physical examination, your doctor may order other tests to help determine whether you have carpal tunnel syndrome.

If you have a history of arthritis or injury, your doctor may order x-ray images of your hand and wrist.

Tests

  • An electromyogram, or EMG, measures the electrical activity in muscles. EMG results can show whether you have any muscle damage.
  • Nerve conduction studies measure the signals travelling in the nerves of your arm and hand. These tests can also measure the severity of carpal tunnel syndrome. Knowing this helps guide your doctor in choosing treatment options.

Tests

In many cases, an EMG is performed along with nerve conduction studies. This provides your doctor with a better understanding of the electrical activity in both your muscles and nerves.

These tests can also help distinguish between carpal tunnel syndrome and other causes of nerve problems in the arm and hand, such as a pinched nerve in the neck or peripheral neuropathy.

Close up of EMG with nerve conduction study.

Do You Understand?

1. Do you understand the tests your doctor may perform during the physical examination?

2. Do you understand the additional tests your doctor may order?

Please take a moment now to write down any questions you still have about how carpal tunnel syndrome is diagnosed.

Bring your questions to your orthopaedic surgeon at your next appointment.

Nonsurgical Treatment

There are several nonsurgical treatment options for carpal tunnel syndrome, depending on how serious your symptoms are, and how severe the results from the nerve test are.

The most common nonsurgical options include:

  • Braces
  • Exercises
  • Medication
  • Steroid injections

Braces

Mild carpal tunnel syndrome can be managed by wearing braces that keep your wrist in a straight position to reduce pressure on the nerve. These braces are usually worn at night.

Exercise

Some people feel better when doing stretching or nerve gliding exercises for the wrist. The goal of nerve gliding exercises is to help the median nerve move more freely within the tight confines of the carpal tunnel.

Medication

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or oral steroids can provide temporary relief from painful symptoms.

Steroid Injections

An injection of cortisone-type medicine into the carpal tunnel can relieve more serious symptoms, but the pain may come back.

Nonsurgical treatments are often effective at managing carpal tunnel for long periods of time. If symptoms progress, however, permanent damage to the median nerve can occur, so it is important to keep track of your symptoms and have regular check-ups with your doctor.

Do You Understand?

Do you understand the different ways carpal tunnel can be treated without surgery?

Please take a moment now to write down any questions you still have about nonsurgical treatments.

Bring your questions to your orthopaedic surgeon at your next appointment.

Surgical Treatment

Carpal Tunnel Release

If your symptoms have persisted through nonsurgical treatments, you and your doctor may decide that surgery is the best option for you.

The goal of surgery is to relieve your symptoms and to prevent further compression and damage to the median nerve.

The surgical procedure performed for carpal tunnel syndrome is called a carpal tunnel release.

Carpal Tunnel Release

The goal of carpal tunnel surgery is to make more room for the median nerve and flexor tendons.

There are different surgical techniques for doing this, but all involve cutting the transverse carpal ligament to open up the carpal tunnel.

Carpal Tunnel Release: Open Surgery

Carpal tunnel release is generally performed as an open procedure, meaning the surgeon makes an incision and views the inside of the hand and wrist through this incision. The length of incision for an open procedure can vary depending on the surgeon's preference.

Once the skin is closed, the ligament begins to heal and grow across the division. The new growth heals the ligament and allows more space for the nerve and tendons.

Carpal Tunnel Release - Endoscopic Surgery

Some surgeons make smaller incisions and use a miniature camera - called an endoscope - to see inside the hand and wrist, and cut the ligament.

Here, the endoscope is inserted at the wrist and the cutting instrument will be inserted in the palm.

Carpal Tunnel Release - Endoscopic Surgery

This is a view of what the surgeon sees through the endoscope. In this image, the ligament is being cut. A metal sheath surrounds the area where the endoscope and cutting instruments are inserted.

The blue arrows point to the cut edges of the ligament.

Carpal Tunnel Release - Endoscopic Surgery

A few stitches close the incisions.

The number of incisions for an endoscopic release can vary, depending on the surgeon's preference.

The incisions are closed with stiches.

Carpal Tunnel Release

Open and endoscopic procedures are equally effective. The type of surgery you have will depend most on the type of procedure your doctor typically performs. Your doctor will discuss with you the benefits of the different techniques, and which one might be best for you.

Do You Understand?

1. Do you understand the different surgical procedures for carpal tunnel syndrome?

2. Have you talked with your doctor about the procedure that would be best for you?

Please take a moment now to write down any questions you still have about surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome.

Bring your questions to your orthopaedic surgeon at your next appointment.

Your Surgery

Before Surgery

Your orthopaedic surgeon will help you plan and prepare for your surgery.

Be sure you have discussed your entire medical history with your surgeon, and have provided any medications you are taking. You may be asked to stop certain medications prior to the procedure.

Before Surgery

You may need to have pre-operative tests, such as blood tests or an electrocardiogram, before the surgery.

Before Surgery

Depending on your medical history, your surgeon may ask you to make an appointment with your primary doctor to make sure that you have no medical problems that need to be addressed before surgery.

The Day of Surgery

Before your procedure, your surgeon and a doctor from the anesthesia department will talk to you about the different anesthesia choices. What is best for you may depend on your surgeon's preference and the type of carpal tunnel procedure you are having.

The Day of Surgery

A local anesthetic can be injected at the site of the surgery and can make the area numb from a few hours to over a day. This is often combined with intravenous medicines to keep patients comfortable.

The Day of Surgery

Regional blocks will generally make your entire arm numb.

Regional blocks can be given intravenously or by injecting medication around the nerves that control feeling in your arm and hand. Regional blocks may also be combined with medications to make you sleepy and comfortable during the procedure.

You can also be put to sleep (general anesthesia) for the surgery.

Do You Understand?

1. Do you understand what you may need to do before surgery?

2. Do you understand the different anesthesia options?

Please take a moment now to write down any questions you still have about what happens before surgery.

Bring your questions to your orthopaedic surgeon at your next appointment.

After Surgery

At the end of the procedure, your surgeon will bandage your hand to protect the incision.

You will be able to go home on the same day of your surgery. Be sure to have someone with you to drive you home.

Your surgeon will give you a prescription for pain medication to help with any discomfort after the surgery.

If you have had an open procedure, your surgeon may put your hand in a splint for a few days to protect it. You may need to wear a wrist brace for about 2 weeks after your surgery.

You may have mild swelling and bruising after the surgery. Moving your fingers can help reduce swelling. Your surgeon will tell you when you can safely begin to use your hand and wrist. He or she may prescribe hand therapy, but it is not essential for a good recovery.

Many patients have some degree of wrist or hand pain after surgery. This usually gets better over several months.

In many cases, the first carpal tunnel symptom to resolve is pain at night. The numbness and tingling you experience during the day will start improving as well.

How long it will take before you start having results from surgery will depend on how severe your carpal tunnel syndrome was.

Severe cases can take over a year to see the full benefit of the surgery. In cases where the thumb muscle has deteriorated, patients may benefit from the surgery, but may not recover full muscle strength.

When symptoms are severe, thumb muscles can waste away. This is called thenar atrophy.

Do You Understand?

1. Do you understand what will happen after your surgery?

2. Do you understand how you may feel after surgery?

3. Do you understand how long it may take for you to recover?

Please take a moment now to write down any questions you still have about recovering from surgery.

Bring your questions to your orthopaedic surgeon at your next appointment.

Risks and Complications

The complication rate following carpal tunnel release is very low. Most complications, if they occur, are minor and can be treated easily.

It is important that you know and understand the risks before you make the decision to have surgery. Possible surgical complications include:

  • Infection
  • Persistent symptoms
  • Recurrent symptoms
  • Major nerve injury/numbness

Infection

Infection is possible with any surgery. Rates of infection in carpal tunnel release surgery are considered to be extremely low. If an infection does occur, it is typically treated with oral antibiotics. Occasionally, surgery may be needed to clean out the infected area.

Some surgeons give antibiotics before and/or after surgery. Studies have shown that rates of infection after carpal tunnel surgery are the same, whether antibiotics are given or not.

Persistent Symptoms

In some cases, carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms continue even after surgery. Typical reasons for this include:

  • An incomplete release of the transverse carpal ligament
  • A mass within the carpal tunnel
  • Long-standing disease which has caused severe damage to the nerve
  • Nerve compression in areas outside the carpal tunnel, such as the neck or elbow
  • Disease of the nerve itself or "neuropathy" that is not caused by compression

Persistent symptoms may require further investigation for other causes. They may require an additional surgery, which is called a revision surgery.

Recurrent Symptoms

A return of symptoms after a period of relief is possible after carpal tunnel release.

Recurrent symptoms can be caused by scar formation around the median nerve. The nerve may also scar down to surrounding structures within the carpal tunnel. Portions of the transverse carpal tunnel ligament may re-form and cause pressure on the nerve. The synovial tissue which surrounds the tendons may thicken over time causing further squeezing of the nerve.

Return of symptoms, if significant, may be a reason to undergo a revision of the original carpal tunnel surgery. Depending on the cause, the outcome of revision surgery may not be as good as the original surgery.

Your surgeon will discuss with you what to expect if further surgery is required.

Major Nerve Injury

Irreversible damage to the median nerve, branches of the median nerve, or nearby nerves are among the most serious complications of carpal tunnel surgery. Fortunately, the chance of this type of complication is less than 0.5%.

If a nerve injury does occur, there can be pain and permanent loss of feeling and function. Further surgeries may be necessary to try and improve these symptoms.

Do You Understand?

1. Do you understand the risks and complications of carpal tunnel release surgery?

Please take a moment now to write down any questions you still have about the risks and complications of surgery.

Bring your questions to your orthopaedic surgeon at your next appointment.

Conclusion

Outcomes

Carpal tunnel release is a highly effective surgery that can relieve the hand pain and numbness caused by carpal tunnel syndrome.

Outcomes

Open and endoscopic surgical techniques are equally effective in relieving symptoms.

Understanding the goals of surgery, the benefits, and the risks are important when you are making the decision whether to have surgery.

Your orthopaedic surgeon is a highly trained specialist who can answer any other questions you may have about carpal tunnel release.

If you have further questions about your upcoming surgery, take time now to write them down so that you can discuss them with your orthopaedic surgeon.

Related Topics

For more information about carpal tunnel syndrome and surgery:

  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (http://orthoinfo.aaos.orghttp://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00005)
  • Questions to Ask Your Doctor Before Surgery (http://orthoinfo.aaos.orghttp://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00562)
  • Electrodiagnostic Testing (http://orthoinfo.aaos.orghttp://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00270)
  • Managing Pain With Medications After Orthopaedic Surgery (http://orthoinfo.aaos.orghttp://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00650)
  • Alternative Methods to Help Manage Pain After Orthopaedic Surgery (http://orthoinfo.aaos.orghttp://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00649)

For more information on musculoskeletal health, return to the AAOS OrthoInfo (http://orthoinfo.aaos.orghttp://orthoinfo.aaos.org/) website.