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How to Relieve Carpal Tunnel During Pregnancy

Carpal tunnel during pregnancy is very common—but there are ways to relieve it.
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By Dani Wolfe, Contributing Writer
Updated November 17, 2023
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Feeling tingling or numbness in your hands during pregnancy? Don’t be alarmed—it’s likely yet another weird-seeming but normal sign of pregnancy called pregnancy carpal tunnel. The aches and pains of pregnancy carpal tunnel syndrome are all too common: Research indicates that between 31 and 62 percent of pregnant people have symptoms—that’s compared to just 3 to 6 percent of the general population. But just because it’s normal doesn’t mean it’s any less annoying. Here’s what you should know about carpal tunnel during pregnancy—including how to get relief.

What Is Carpal Tunnel?

Carpal tunnel, or carpal tunnel syndrome, is a condition that causes numbness, tingling and even pain in the hands and forearms, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). The nerves and tendons that help you bend your fingers run through a narrow passageway in the wrist—the carpal tunnel—which can sometimes become squeezed or compressed.

Pregnancy Carpal Tunnel Symptoms

Trevor Petrie, MOTR/L, CHT, a certified hand therapist and chief medical officer at Grace & Able, says that the most common symptoms of carpal tunnel during pregnancy include:

  • Tingling, burning or numbness sensations in the wrist and fingers
  • Loss of strength in the hand and wrist
  • Difficulty making a fist or gripping objects
  • A feeling of swelling in the fingers, even if they don’t appear swollen

It’s normal for pregnancy carpal tunnel symptoms to come and go, notes Petrie. “Carpal tunnel symptoms may be worse at night because many people sleep with bent wrists, which can exacerbate symptoms,” he says. He adds that unlike the general population, pregnant people often notice symptoms in both hands. This happens because pregnancy carpal tunnel is a result of hormonal changes rather than repetitive strain injuries.

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What Causes Pregnancy Carpal Tunnel?

Petrie says that pregnant people are at higher risk of developing carpal tunnel symptoms due to hormonal changes, musculoskeletal shifts and increased fluid retention. But the main culprit is the pregnancy hormone relaxin. “It can cause laxity and inflammation in the ligaments in the wrists—in turn, this irritates the median nerve, leading to carpal tunnel symptoms,” he explains.

When Does Carpal Tunnel Start in Pregnancy?

While pregnancy carpal tunnel symptoms can start at any time during pregnancy, most people notice symptoms developing in the second or third trimester, says Shandra Scruggs, RN, a labor and delivery nurse, doula and founder of Simply Birthed. This is because pregnancy weight gain tends to put extra stress on the wrists, she says.

How to Relieve Pregnancy Carpal Tunnel

The quickest way to find relief for pregnancy carpal tunnel is by reducing the pressure in your wrist, advises Petrie. You can do this with several daily lifestyle changes:

  • Wrist splints. Wearing wrist splints (or wrist braces) at night can stop you from naturally curling your hands while you sleep. Keeping your wrists in straight alignment using a brace takes the pressure off the median nerve and reduces inflammation.

  • Warm compresses. Using warm compresses on your wrists several times a day for 15 minutes at a time can help relieve the swelling and pain from pregnancy carpal tunnel pressure.

  • Ergonomics. Proper hand and wrist positioning is crucial to relieve symptoms. Use a phone holder or grip to avoid bending your wrists when texting or scrolling. When working on a computer, set up your workstation to be at an optimal height so you’re not bending your wrists upward or downward when typing.

  • Rest. Take regular breaks to allow your hands, wrists and fingers to rest. Be aware when you’re tense, and try to relax. You’d be surprised at how stress directly correlates with stiffness in your hands.

Pregnancy carpal tunnel exercises

Petrie says that another effective way to relieve pregnancy carpal tunnel is with regular hand and wrist exercises, which can not only help manage pregnancy carpal tunnel symptoms, but stop the condition from getting worse over time. The key is to stretch and strengthen the muscles and tendons in the carpal tunnel region. Petrie recommends the following exercises for carpal tunnel during pregnancy:

  • Wrist extension. Straighten out your arm in front of you, with your wrist facing the ceiling. Flex your hand so that your fingers are pointing away from you. Using your opposite hand, gently pull your fingers downward to feel the stretch in your forearm. Hold this for up to 30 seconds.

  • Wrist flexion. Straighten your arm out in front of you, with your wrist facing the floor. Straighten your hand so that your fingers are pointing away from you. Using your opposite hand, gently push on the back of your hand downward to feel the stretch. Hold for up to 30 seconds.

If you feel pain during the exercises, you should stop immediately. Take it slowly, and don’t push yourself too hard.

Can You Prevent Carpal Tunnel Syndrome During Pregnancy?

Unfortunately, you can’t entirely prevent carpal tunnel during pregnancy since it goes hand-in-hand with hormonal pregnancy changes, says Petrie. But to stay one step ahead, you can manage it with the above-mentioned lifestyle changes and exercises, he says. Scruggs also recommends staying active and engaging in regular, low-impact exercise to promote overall health and circulation.

When to Talk to Your Doctor About Carpal Tunnel During Pregnancy

Scruggs recommends contacting your doctor if your pregnancy carpal tunnel symptoms persist for several weeks, interfere with daily activities, or if you start to notice new areas of numbness or weakness. Most pregnancy carpal tunnel cases are mild and require no medical treatment. But in some cases, your doctor might recommend cortisone injections. According to the AAOS, corticosteroid injections are generally safe during pregnancy. However, Michael Green, MD, an ob-gyn in Lake Arrowhead, California, suggests that cortisone shots during pregnancy should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, considering the specific circumstances and potential risks and benefits.

If you experience sudden swelling in your hands, feet or face, severe headaches, nausea, shortness of breath or stomach pain, see your doctor immediately as these could be signs of a serious pregnancy complication called preeclampsia, says Petrie. “[Preeclampsia] can be mistaken for carpal tunnel syndrome, as both conditions involve sensations of swelling, numbness and tingling in the hands,” he explains.

When Does Pregnancy Carpal Tunnel Go Away?

In most cases, pregnancy carpal tunnel goes away soon after delivery, thanks to your hormones diving back down to normal levels—although it can also take a few weeks or months, says Scruggs. The hormone relaxin can stick around in your body for up to 12 months after childbirth.

FAQ About Carpal Tunnel During Pregnancy

Can having carpal tunnel during pregnancy affect baby?

Carpal tunnel during pregnancy generally doesn’t affect baby, says Scruggs. “The symptoms like hand pain and tingling are felt by the mother and typically don’t influence baby’s health or development,” she notes.

Does having carpal tunnel during pregnancy mean preeclampsia?

Although both pregnancy carpal tunnel and preeclampsia can involve hand tingling, numbness and swelling, these conditions are unrelated. Carpal tunnel is a localized issue in the hands and wrists, says Green. “Preeclampsia is a separate pregnancy-related condition characterized by high blood pressure and organ dysfunction—it poses more significant risks to both the mother and baby,” he says.

Can carpal tunnel during pregnancy cause permanent damage?

Carpal tunnel during pregnancy is typically temporary and usually resolves itself following childbirth. But Petrie warns that if severe cases are left untreated, carpal tunnel syndrome can damage the median nerve, causing long-term tingling, numbness and weakness in the hands.

Pregnancy carpal tunnel is a common pregnancy symptom. It can seem scary, but it’s generally nothing to worry about—and, thankfully, it usually goes away soon after delivery. That said, if your symptoms are particularly bothersome, check in with your provider.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

Sources

Michael Green, MD, is a board-certified ob-gyn in Lake Arrowhead, CA. He earned his medical degree from Saint Louis University and has been in practice for over 30 years. Green is also chief medical officer at Winona and an OB hospitalist and site director at Northridge Medical Center.

Trevor Petrie, MOTR/L, CHT, is a certified hand therapist with over 10 years of clinical experience. He obtained his Master of Occupational Therapy degree from the University of Washington in 2012 and earned his Certification in Hand Therapy five years later. Petrie is also the co-founder and chief medical officer of Grace & Able, where he has designed a patented wrist brace that relieves carpal tunnel symptoms in comfort.

Shandra Scruggs, RN, is a registered labor and delivery nurse and certified doula practicing in New Jersey. She began her health-care career in 2012 and developed a deep commitment to empowering and supporting women during the birthing process. Scruggs is also the founder of Simply Birthed, where she believes everyone should have access to holistic and emotional support during childbirth.

UT Southwestern Medical Center, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Pregnancy Go Hand in Hand, October 2020

American Family Physician (American Academy of Family Physicians), Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, April 2011

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, March 2022

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, Are Steroid Injections a Safe Treatment for CTS During Pregnancy?, July 2023

Cleveland Clinic, Relaxin, October 2022

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