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Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Versus Tendonitis

Dr Brutus - July 14, 2021

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Wrist Tendonitis are both common conditions that affect the hand and wrist. The symptoms of the two are highly similar, which can lead to confusion and misdiagnosis.

Even though they manifest in a similar manner, there are still a few distinctive differences between these two conditions which your doctor will be able to pinpoint. Getting the correct diagnosis will be key to proper treatment and preventing irreversible nerve damage.

Let’s take a look at each condition, their differences, and what the treatment options are:

What is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

CTS develops when the median nerve is compressed due to increased pressure. Carpal tunnel gradually develops over time, and can lead to tingling, numbness, burning sensation, pain and even weakness in the hand and wrist. Patients who suffer from carpal tunnel may also find that their pain is worse at night. Some even complain of disrupted sleep or an inability to fall asleep. The median nerve runs through the carpal tunnel and controls all movement in the hand and fingers, except the pinky.

There are a variety of risk factors for developing carpal tunnel syndrome such as age, genetics, sex, occupation and underlying medical conditions.

What is Tendonitis?

The tendons slide in a sheath line with synovial fluid to create a seamless, pain-free movement. When inflammation or injury occurs, this disrupts the sheath and thus causes pain. Essentially, the inflammation causes the tendon to become stuck in the sheath.

While there is only one median nerve, there are several wrist tendons which can become inflamed and affect the wrist. It is possibly for more than one tendon to be impacted at a time.

Wrist tendonitis often occurs where two tendons cross over one another or a bony area. Common symptoms of tendonitis includes:

  • -Pain and inflammation of the wrist
  • -Warmth and redness of the tendons
  • -Grinding sensation with movement

Similar to carpal tunnel, there are a variety of risk factors that may cause one to develop carpal tunnel. This includes autoimmune conditions, overuse, injury, or systemic conditions like gout.

How Can I Tell the Difference?

The difference in condition lies where the pain and discomfort are located. Carpal Tunnel results from nerve compression, while tendonitis is the result of inflammation:

With Carpal Tunnel:

  • -Pain is located on the palm side of the wrist
  • -Tingling and numbness may then spread to the wrist, thumb, or fingers (mainly the thumb, index finger and middle finger)
  • -Some patients complain of itching, also an inability to sleep through the night.

With Wrist Tendonitis:

  • -The pain is located on the other side of the wrist.
  • -The pain extends into the pinky finger.
  • -The pain increases with movement.
  • -A lump or bump may appear around the tendon.

Many patients may confuse the symptoms, but a licensed physician will be able to give the correct diagnosis. You should not self-diagnose yourself because the key differences between carpal tunnel syndrome and wrist tendonitis matter.

Why Does the Difference Matter?

The difference in the location and severity of pain matters because they will require different treatment options. If the condition is misdiagnosed, you may receive the wrong treatment. Improper treatment will result in no improvement, or at worst, worsen symptoms, and potentially cause more damage. Hand conditions can cause irreversible and permanent sequelae if treatment is delayed.

Treatment Options

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Wrist Tendonitis both have similar treatment options. These options include:

  • -Over-the-counter pain relievers
  • -Ergonomic modifications in daily routines
  • -Wrist Splints: Your wrist splint should only be used as directed by your doctor. For carpal tunnel, it may be recommended only for nighttime use. Wrist tendonitis may require longer periods of wear, especially during daytime activities.
  • -Occupational therapy: An occupational therapist will tailor treatment to your needs.
  • -Daily Stretches & exercise: Even if your injury is from overuse, your doctor may recommend light stretches and strengthening exercises to combat the pain.
  • -Cortisone Injections: Cortisone injections provide temporary relief. Over time, they may weaken the tendons and cause more damage.
  • -Surgery: Your physician may recommend surgery when your daily life is impacted or if there is no improvement with any of the other treatment options.

Final Thoughts

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Wrist Tendonitis are very similar but they have key differences which may require different treatments. Depending on the severity and location of your pain, your doctor may prescribe any of the above treatment options.

Surgery is likely to be recommended if you are losing motor function or symptoms are not improving with conservative treatment. If you notice symptoms that are consistent with either condition and last more than two weeks, consult a doctor as soon as possible. Hand or wrist pain can greatly impact daily activities. If left untreated, either condition can cause irreversible damage.

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