PT may be treatment option for carpal tunnel syndrome

“I had a nerve conduction test about four weeks ago and have been told today that I have carpal tunnel syndrome,” wrote a woman named Louise on a patient forum. “My doctor has referred me to a surgeon. Is there anyone out there who surgery has worked for?”

Most of the respondents had sad tales to tell Louise. But, Marlene replied, “I had this operation done three years ago on my left hand, and wished I’d not left it so long. I spent years putting up with being awakened in the early hours with terrible hand pain. After I had it done – pure relief.”

Marlene is one of the fortunate ones. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, carpal tunnel syndrome surgery has about a 57 percent failure rate following patients from one-day to six-years. To put that number into perspective, roughly 850,000 new cases are diagnosed each year of which approximately 260,000 will have surgery.

If we haven’t had CTS ourselves, we most likely know someone (or several someones) who have had this condition that causes pain, numbness and weakness in the wrist and hand. As a matter of fact, according to an article in Medical News Today, “nearly half of all work-related injuries are linked to this syndrome, which can result from repetitive movements.”

An article published this week in MNT may cheer up anyone suffering from this debilitating condition. It references a new study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy that says, “Physical therapy is as effective as surgery in treating carpal tunnel syndrome.”

“Researchers in Spain and the United States report that one year following treatment, patients with carpal tunnel syndrome who received physical therapy achieved results comparable to outcomes for patients who had surgery for this condition. Further, physical therapy patients saw faster improvements at the one-month mark than did patients treated surgically,” the article says.

The study was conducted on 100 women from the same hospital in Spain of whom 50 received PT and 50 had surgery. Obviously more research needs to be conducted to generalize their findings.

But at first blush, it’s believed that the study demonstrates that “physical therapy of the neck and median nerve and stretching exercises may be preferable to surgery, certainly as a starting point for treatment.”

“After one month, the patients in the physical therapy group had better hand function during daily activities and better grip strength (also known as pinch strength between the thumb and index finger) than the patients who had surgery. At three, six, and 12 months following treatment, patients in the surgery group were no better than those in the physical therapy group.

“Both groups showed similar improvements in function and grip strength. Pain also decreased similarly for patients in both groups. The researchers conclude that physical therapy and surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome yield similar benefits one year after treatment.”

Your healthcare provider can advise you best if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms: Numbness, tingling, burning and pain primarily in the thumb and index, middle and ring fingers; occasional shock-like sensations that radiate to those same fingers; pain or tingling that travels up your arm toward your shoulder; weakness or clumsiness.

“In most cases, the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome begin gradually, without a specific injury,” the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons says. “Many patients find that their symptoms come and go at first. However as the condition worsens, symptoms may occur more frequently or may persist for longer periods of time.”

If you sleep with your wrist bent, symptoms might wake you up. During the day, activities such as holding a phone, driving or reading a book for a period of time might bring on symptoms.

“Many patients find that moving or shaking their hands helps relive their symptoms,” the AAOS says, but if that’s not the case your PCP might suggest wearing a brace or splint, particularly at night; taking medications such as ibuprofen or naproxen; changing activities; nerve gliding exercises and/or steroid injections. Now, be sure to ask about physical therapy.

Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at 264-4029 or kathyleehubbard@yahoo.com.