Carpal tunnel syndrome can feel like numbness and tingling, but it may feel different over time. Early detection and treatment of carpal tunnel can stop people from losing feeling and strength in their fingers.

Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is a condition that causes people to experience symptoms in their hands, wrists, and forearms.

Compression or squeezing of a major nerve at a person’s wrist can cause a person to develop CTS. This nerve, called the median nerve, runs from a person’s brachial plexus — near the shoulder — to the hand and fingers.

Most people with CTS have symptoms that get worse over time. Untreated CTS can eventually lead to loss of sensation and weakness in a person’s hand and fingers.

People can develop CTS at any age, but it usually affects adults. CTS is most common in people aged 40–60 years. Females are three times more likely than males to develop CTS. People with diabetes or other metabolic disorders are also at a higher risk of CTS.

This article discusses how carpal tunnel syndrome pain feels in a person’s hands, wrists, and arms. It also discusses CTS treatment and when to consult a doctor.

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People with CTS typically experience symptoms in their hands, wrists, and arms. They may feel:

Their symptoms usually start gradually. At first, people with CTS typically experience symptoms at night when lying down. As their CTS progresses, they begin having symptoms during the day. They may especially experience CTS symptoms with repetitive activities, such as:

  • drawing
  • typing
  • playing video games

People with advanced CTS may experience symptoms constantly.

Carpal tunnel in hands

With CTS in the hands, a person may feel:

  • frequent numbness, burning, or tingling in their fingers, especially their:
    • thumb, index, or middle fingers
    • ring finger
  • a sensation that their fingers are useless and swollen, even if they show little or no swelling
  • aches or pain in their fingers or hand
  • numbness in the hand
  • a need to “shake out” their hand after waking up
  • hand weakness that leads to difficulty gripping or a weak thumb
  • occasional shock-like sensations that radiate out to their fingers
  • occasional difficulty moving their thumb or first two fingers

More than half of all people with CTS experience symptoms in both hands. Their symptoms can vary in intensity between their hands. If a person only has CTS in one hand, it is usually their dominant hand.

If a person has severe CTS, they may not be able to tell hot from cold objects by touch.

People with untreated or chronic CTS may have muscles that shrink or waste away. These muscles are the thenar muscles at the base of the thumb. This condition is called thenar atrophy.

Carpal tunnel in wrists

People with CTS may experience symptoms in their wrists, such as:

  • a feeling that they need to “shake out” their wrist when waking up
  • pain
  • numbness
  • weakness
  • tingling, also called paresthesia

A person may have symptoms if they maintain bent wrists for a long time, such as when:

  • holding something, such as a cell phone or book
  • sleeping with their wrists bent

Carpal tunnel in the arms

People with CTS may feel aches or pains in their arms.

People with more advanced CTS may feel a sensation of burning, pain, or tingling that travels up their arm. These sensations may travel up their forearm toward their shoulder.

Other symptoms of CTS may include:

  • dropping things due to:
    • hand weakness
    • numbness
    • impaired proprioception, which is a loss of awareness of where the hand is in space
  • having difficulty grasping small objects or performing other manual tasks due to hand weakness

As CTS progresses, a person may also experience:

  • increased clumsiness
  • reduced motor coordination

People should speak with a doctor if they have pain and tingling in their hands.

Diagnosing and treating CTS early is important to help prevent permanent and severe loss of hand function.

Doctors may treat CTS using a variety of methods. These include:

  • physical and occupational therapy
  • medication to reduce pain and swelling, such as:
    • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, including aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium
    • steroid injections
  • a wrist splint at night for at least 3 weeks
  • surgery for CTS that is severe or does not improve with other treatments

The following are questions people frequently ask about carpal tunnel syndrome.

How can I check myself for carpal tunnel?

People can check themselves for CTS by noticing if they have:

  • aches or pains in their:
    • fingers
    • hand
    • arm
  • weakening grip strength

However, for a conclusive diagnosis, people should always seek professional medical attention.

How does carpal tunnel feel at first?

Initially, CTS feels like frequent numbness or tingling in a person’s fingers, especially their thumb, index, and middle fingers. These feelings start gradually in one or both hands during the night. A person usually feels CTS in their dominant or writing hand first.

What are the stages of carpal tunnel?

Doctors commonly classify carpal tunnel syndrome into three stages. The stages are based on the severity of a person’s symptoms:

  • mild CTS, with symptoms that come and go
  • moderate CTS, with symptoms that tend to be constant
  • severe CTS, with constant symptoms and muscle wastage

At first, CTS feels like frequent numbness or tingling in a person’s fingers at night. Their symptoms may come and go.

As a person’s CTS progresses, they can feel other symptoms, such as pain shooting up their arm. These symptoms can happen more often and during the day.

Untreated CTS can cause people to develop a loss of function in their hands. However, early detection and treatment of CTS by a healthcare professional can reduce a person’s CTS symptoms.