Last updated: Feb 22, 2008
Your hand and wrist ache after working at the computer all day, and they sometimes start feeling numb. Maybe the pain is centered on your forearms. Uh-oh: It's carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), and soon you'll need a date with the surgeon, right?

Probably not. Research in recent years has found that things like typing and sewing rarely cause carpal tunnel, explains Barry Simmons, MD, Harvard Medical School's chief of hand and arm surgery, who recently edited a special report on the topic. It's more likely that you have a repetitive-strain injury, caused by overworking the muscles and nerves in your hands and forearms.

CTS happens when a nerve passing through your wrist gets pinched, usually because of arthritis, obesity, water retention due to pregnancy or PMS, or because you were born with a too-small passage, Simmons notes.

The good news: For an overuse injury, you don't need to go under the knife. Surgery won't fix the problem, in fact. Try over-the-counter medicine to relieve the pain, and rest your hands regularly. Stay off the computer or limit your use to 20-minute sessions with 10-minute breaks, for example.

Wear splints while you work to keep your wrists from bending too high or low, and use a keyboard tray or adjust your chair so the keyboard and mouse are below your elbows and your wrists are level.

If these steps don't seem to help, make an appointment with your doctor, who can do specific tests to determine the real problem, and can refer you to a hand specialist if it's necessary.

Carpal tunnel, or just overuse?

The two conditions can feel similar, but these subtle clues can help you tell them apart.

Carpal tunnel syndrome

  • Numbness and tingling on the palm side of the fingers is common.

  • Pain may shoot up the arm when you stretch your wrists.

  • Pain may wake you up at night or be worse in the morning.

  • You may have trouble making a fist, or lose coordination in your fingers.

Overuse injury

  • Numbness and tingling appear over the back of the hand, if at all.

  • Pain is dull, and usually in your forearms.

  • It hurts the worst after the activity that caused the injury.

  • You can't lift heavy objects because your hands feel tired.