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Erin Nance, MD
President and Founder of Nance MD

What to Know About Carpal Tunnel Syndrome During Pregnancy

Experiencing pain or numbness in your hands? It could be Carpal Tunnel. Learn what causes the condition and how to find relief.

Pregnancy comes with its fair share of aches and pains—some of them you come to expect, and some of them can take you by complete surprise. Take, for example, pain in your hands that wakes you up at night. Sound familiar? This could actually be a common problem during pregnancy called Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Here’s what to know about Carpal Tunnel during pregnancy and how you can find some relief.

What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is a painful hand and wrist condition involving the median nerve of the wrist. The nerve lies within a space called the carpal tunnel, and it controls the sensation to the palm side of your thumb, index, middle and half of your ring fingers. It also plays a key role in giving your thumb the strength to pinch and grip objects. When the nerve is compressed, it causes painful numbness and tingling of some or all of those fingers (called paresthesias). Carpal Tunnel during pregnancy is extremely common, occurring in up to 62 percent of pregnancies—so while it can be pretty uncomfortable, know that at least you’re not alone.

What Causes Carpal Tunnel During Pregnancy?

During pregnancy your body swells, causing nerves to compress. The problem is, nerves need space in order to perform their functions properly (aka, sense touch, temperature and pain). When your pregnant body is swollen, the nerve becomes pinched, causing those painful Carpal Tunnel symptoms, particularly overnight. That’s because people tend to sleep with their hands curled (just like our little ones!). When the wrists are flexed for a long period of time, it puts pressure on the nerve. Many women wake up feeling the need to “shake out” their hands to make the tingling go away.

Signs of Carpal Tunnel During Pregnancy

So what does Carpal Tunnel feel like, and how can you tell if you have the condition? The most common Carpal Tunnel symptoms include:

  • Pain in the hands and/or wrists, especially at night
  • Numb fingers
  • Tingling fingers
  • A weak grip

A doctor or hand specialist will usually determine whether you have Carpal Tunnel by performing a detailed medical history and physical examination. Another condition that can commonly cause hand numbness is a cervical spine herniated disc. However, this typically causes hand numbness or tingling in both hands, and the numbness is more constant throughout the day and isn’t relieved with splinting of the wrists. Sometimes a specialized nerve test, called a nerve conduction velocity test, may be required to make a diagnosis, although it’s pretty uncommon to need one to determine Carpal Tunnel in pregnancy.

How to Treat Carpal Tunnel During Pregnancy

The simplest and most common Carpal Tunnel treatment is to use a splint. At night, people tend to sleep with their hands curled (just like our little ones!). Using a splint at night will help keep the wrists straight, thereby relieving the pressure on the nerve. If you’re experiencing tingling or numb fingers around the clock, you can also try wearing the splint during the day.

If the Carpal Tunnel pain, numbness or tingling sensation doesn’t go away after a few minutes, is occurring daily or is significantly affecting the way you use your hands, it may be time to seek the help of a hand specialist. They can administer a cortisone injection into the wrist, which can often provide significant Carpal Tunnel relief and get you through those last tough weeks of pregnancy. Single-dose, local corticosteroid injections either into tendons or joint spaces are safe for babies in utero and while breastfeeding. These types of injections can help relieve pain and don’t affect the baby.

If you’re wondering whether Carpal Tunnel will go away after pregnancy, there’s good news. For most women, those uncomfortable Carpal Tunnel symptoms dissipate in the first few weeks after delivery. However, Carpal Tunnel can turn into a chronic problem if your symptoms persist after giving birth, so make sure to mention these concerns to your doctor and be evaluated by a hand specialist.

How to Prevent Carpal Tunnel During Pregnancy

While there’s no sure-fire way to prevent Carpal Tunnel while pregnant, limiting your hands from flexing in repetitive or continuous use will help keep them in an optimal position to prevent pinching of the nerve. Many women complain of Carpal Tunnel symptoms after typing on a keyboard for long periods of time. Inserting a gel pad under the keyboard will help keep the wrist in a neutral position and provide support for the wrist while you type. While there aren’t any specific exercises to prevent Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, taking frequent breaks to allow your wrists to flex and extend in a natural motion will help the nerve from being either stretched or compressed for too long.

Erin Nance, MD, is a board-certified and fellowship-trained orthopedic hand surgeon. She specializes in hand and upper extremity surgery and conservative treatment, and has a focus on treating common injuries and conditions in women. She practices in New York City, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Visit her at NanceMD.com.

Updated August 2019

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