Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in Pregnancy

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Are you experiencing tingling, numbness, or pain in your hand? Do you find that you’re dropping things much more lately? You could have carpal tunnel syndrome—something many pregnant women experience especially in the third trimester of pregnancy.

What is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

You may have heard of carpal tunnel syndrome in relation to spending too much time typing at your desk. You’ve probably seen some of the fancy wrist pads and keyboard designs that may be helpful in preventing and/or easing the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. Surprisingly, around 50% of pregnant woman may experience carpal tunnel syndrome during their pregnancy whether or not they spend the day typing.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition in which a nerve called the median nerve becomes trapped and squeezed in a narrow passageway on the underside of your wrist called the carpal tunnel. This entrapment is usually caused by inflammation of the tissue (the synovium) surrounding the median nerve in the small area that also houses many tendons that connect to the muscles in your hands. Inflammation of tissues can be caused by overuse (spending your workday typing at a computer).

The median nerve travels down your arm and forearm, through the carpal tunnel. It innervates the thumb, forefinger, middle finger, and half of your ring finger. Symptoms of numbness, tingling, and weakness could be felt in these areas.

How Does Pregnancy Cause Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

It’s no secret that pregnancy can cause swelling in your feet and ankles. That swelling can also be seen in other areas, including the hands and wrists. This swelling can compress the tight passageway in your wrist through which the median nerve travels, causing irritation.

Other risk factors for pregnancy-related carpal tunnel syndrome include having gestational diabetes (blog post here) or gestational hypertension (high blood pressure).

It is estimated that around 50% of pregnant women experience carpal tunnel syndrome due to the swelling that often accompanies pregnancy especially in the third trimester. Non-surgical methods of pain relief are recommended due to the fact that it will most likely subside after giving birth.

How Do I Know It’s Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Your physician can most likely diagnose you clinically (without any invasive procedures) by listening to you explain your symptoms and by performing a simple exam maneuver whereby she attempts to elicit Tinel’s Sign. She does this by tapping the underside of your wrist and hand where the median nerve travels to see if it produces the same symptoms of discomfort you have experienced. She may also ask you to hold your wrists together in front of you in a flexed position to see if you experience numbness or tingling. Furthermore, she will evaluate the muscles of your hand to see if there is any weakening. Electromyography can also be performed, though as stated above, the diagnosis can most likely be made clinically.

Should I Get Surgery to Relieve my Symptoms?

If you were to ask your doctor about getting surgery to relieve symptoms of pregnancy-related carpal tunnel syndrome, she would most likely say no. Your carpal tunnel syndrome is likely to subside after you give birth.

There are many non-surgical ways to relieve the pain, numbness, and tingling associated with carpal tunnel syndrome. First, there are wrist braces that can be used. These braces are designed to be used while sleeping to minimize the flexion of your wrists. (Unbeknownst to us, we tend to flex our wrists while asleep, constricting and aggravating the already irritated carpal tunnel.) Second, there are exercises you may find helpful, such as wrist extension stretches and working on grip strength. Another option is to take acetaminophen (Tylenol) or paracetamol. Make sure you carefully follow the manufacturer’s directions for use because overuse could lead to liver toxicity. Remember, ibuprofen and other NSAIDs are NOT recommended during pregnancy. Rest and ice are also good options for pain relief.

If the above methods don’t work for you, your doctor may suggest a steroid injection, whereby, just as it sounds, steroids are injected into the underside of your wrist to reduce inflammation and irritation. This is usually very effective for the short term. You may find that you need more than one injection because the effects wear off over time. However, multiple injections beyond two or three are not recommended.

The Lowdown

If you are pregnant and experiencing weakness, numbness, tingling, or pain in your hands and wrists, you are not alone. You may be experiencing pregnancy-related carpal tunnel syndrome, and you are not alone. It is estimated that around 50% of pregnant women experience this due to the swelling that often accompanies pregnancy especially in the third trimester. Non-surgical methods of pain relief are recommended due to the fact that the carpal tunnel syndrome will most likely subside after giving birth.

Janette DeFelice
Dr. Janette DeFelice is a writer currently focusing on how the changing environment affects our health. She holds a Doctor of Medicine degree from Chicago Medical School where she taught clinical and diagnostic skills to beginning medical students, and a Master’s degree in Humanities from the University of Chicago. She also has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science. Her writing can be seen online at BeTheChangeMom, ChicagoNow, and Medium, and she’s very excited to have published her first novel, Delia Rising: A Ballet in Three Acts. She lives in Chicago’s west suburbs with her school-age twins, her husband, and a family cat named Clara Barton.

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