Is It Carpal Tunnel Syndrome or Arthritis?

Carpal tunnel syndrome is often confused with arthritis and vice versa. However, both conditions are different in causes and clinical manifestations. Continue reading to find out more.
Is It Carpal Tunnel Syndrome or Arthritis?

Last update: 04 July, 2021

Carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis are two diseases people tend to confuse. The first one is a compression of the median nerve at the wrist, while the second is a localized inflammation in the joints, followed by severe pain and swelling.

It’s an honest mistake though, there are definitely similarities between the two conditions after all. Especially when it comes to treatment. Today’s article will describe their symptoms, causes, and possible treatments, so continue reading.

Carpal tunnel syndrome

The symptoms of this condition are the result of the compression of the median nerve that goes through the wrist. From an anatomical point of view, it crosses a conduit in which the walls are formed by bones and ligaments, denominated “carpal tunnel.”

Under the influence of certain conditions we’ll mention below, the free space inside the tunnel can decrease and affect the median nerve. This nerve has a sensitive function that triggers a set of nerve impulses that lead to abnormal sensations such as tingling and weakness.

It usually occurs in people who do repetitive manual labor, so medicine considers it an occupational disease. Some published research determined the incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome to be 4.2 cases per 100,000 workers.

A person in pain.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is an occupational disease, as it’s common among people who do manual labor.

Check out these Five Soothing Remedies to Relieve Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Pain

Arthritis

As the name suggests, arthritis is an inflammatory process of the joints. There are dozens of types, each with its own risk factors and treatments.

Rheumatoid arthritis is one of the most common. It’s a chronic inflammatory disease of autoimmune nature. What this means is the body identifies joint tissue as “foreign” and gradually destroys it. The cells and proteins of the immune system are a vital part of this process.

This disease is more frequent in women, and the average age of diagnosis is around 40 years old. The EPISER study stands out from the many conducted and indicates the prevalence of the disease to be 0.5%.

Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis

One can clearly differentiate the clinical manifestations of both diseases, especially based on the presence of joint pain and swelling.

Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome

The median nerve is sensitive so the symptoms resulting from its compression correspond to abnormal sensations. However, pain isn’t a common part of the condition.

People with these symptoms usually complain of progressive tingling or numbness. The affected area ranges from the wrist to the ring finger and then to the thumb.

These symptoms, along with the characteristic weakness, can lead to great difficulty in performing everyday activities, including those outside the work environment. This includes driving a car, cooking, washing, and writing.

Symptoms of arthritis

These depend largely on the type of arthritis, although they’re usually classic manifestations of inflammation that encompasses:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Increased local temperature

Some types of arthritis are associated with joint stiffness, especially in the early morning hours. A similarity with carpal tunnel syndrome is the difficulty performing daily activities. This is usually due to intense pain though.

Untreated patients with rheumatoid arthritis often end up with complex joint deformities that significantly limit their quality of life. A deviation of the fingers is the most common.

Causes of carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis

Arthritis is usually a consequence of genetic and environmental factors. People with a family history of rheumatoid arthritis are more prone to the disease, for example. The same is true for those with a heavy smoking habit, or who experienced infections in childhood.

Carpal tunnel syndrome has many associated risk factors, many of them exacerbated by certain work environments. Being female, having chronic diseases such as diabetes mellitus and obesity, writing regularly writing, and certain anatomical factors are the most relevant.

Arthritis

You may not know it but arthritis can cause carpal tunnel syndrome. As we mentioned before, one of the complications of this disease is joint and bone deformities due to inflammatory reactions.

When this happens around the carpal tunnel, it increases the likelihood of it narrowing and compressing the median nerve. As a consequence, symptoms corresponding to both diseases will appear.

What are their treatments?

The goal of medical treatment in both cases is to reduce the symptoms and associated inflammation. However, the underlying cause usually persists. In the case of carpal tunnel syndrome, there are surgical interventions that can definitively resolve the clinical picture. We’ll tell you about it below.

Carpal tunnel syndrome

At first, the physician may suggest basic measures to reduce symptoms in mild cases. This includes the application of cold compresses and rest.

However, it might be necessary to immobilize the joints involved and initiate pharmacological treatment when these aren’t effective. The latter consists of the administration of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and corticosteroids.

Finally, there are surgical options aimed at nerve decompression. This is usually done by a hand surgeon and they may either do it endoscopically or not.

Arthritis

Some of the drugs used in carpal tunnel syndrome may also be useful in cases of arthritis. This is the case with NSAIDs (such as ibuprofen) and corticosteroids. People with rheumatoid arthritis may benefit from the use of disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs).

DMARDs are also used in other diseases, especially ankylosing spondylitis and systemic lupus erythematosus. Methotrexate is a fairly representative example.

A person making a line of pills.
NSAIDs are used in the treatment of both carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis.

Consult a physician if …

… any of the above symptoms persist. Early diagnosis and timely treatment are fundamental pillars to achieve adequate resolution of the medical condition. This reduces the incidence of permanent complications, of course.

Carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis are similar but not the same

As you can see, both conditions clearly differ. The drugs used are similar, but don’t self-medicate as their side effects could be harmful.

Consult your family doctor if you have any of the above symptoms so they can refer you to a specialist.

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