Wednesday, Aug 30, 2023 6 min read

Carpal Tunnel vs. Tendonitis: What To Know

Bridget Reed

Carpal Tunnel vs. Tendonitis: What To Know
Carpal Tunnel vs. Tendonitis: What To Know

With the rise of desk jobs, increased screen time, and repetitive hand activities, there's been a growing concern about wrist and hand ailments among the general population. Aches, numbness, and tingling in the hands can be alarming, especially when the discomfort persists. 


Among the most commonly diagnosed conditions causing these symptoms are Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) and Tendonitis. Both conditions, while distinct, can significantly impact daily functioning and decrease the quality of life. 


However, differentiating between the two and understanding their underlying causes is essential for effective treatment. Let’s look at the nuances of both Carpal Tunnel and Tendonitis, aiming to provide clarity and dispel common myths.


How Are Wrists Structured?

The intricate design of our wrist is a marvel of nature. Comprising eight small bones known as carpal bones, the wrist's structure facilitates a range of movements and functions. These bones form the carpal tunnel — a narrow passageway safeguarded by a ligament, which houses the median nerve and several tendons.


Within this compact area, tendons are pivotal in helping fingers move, acting as bands connecting muscles to bones. The median nerve, running through the carpal tunnel, is responsible for the sensation in the palm side of the thumb, index, middle, and part of the ring finger. It also controls some of the thumb's muscles.


Given this tight space, any inflammation or swelling can exert pressure on the median nerve, leading to issues like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. On the other hand, inflammation or irritation of the tendons within this region can also result in tendonitis, leading to pain and compromised movement.


Understanding the wrist's anatomy isn't just a biology lesson — it's crucial to appreciate how small changes in this delicate structure can influence overall hand functionality and well-being.


What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) is a condition that has become synonymous with the digital age. Its occurrence is primarily tied to the pressure on the median nerve within the confines of the carpal tunnel.


What Are the Causes of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

CTS arises due to the compression of the median nerve as it traverses through the carpal tunnel. Several factors can contribute to this compression. 


The primary causes encompass repetitive hand motions, such as typing or assembly line work. However, other factors, including wrist injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and even hormonal changes during pregnancy, can play a role.


What Are the Symptoms of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

The symptoms of CTS often start gradually and can range from mild to severe. Initially, individuals may notice intermittent numbness or tingling in the thumb, index, and middle fingers. As the condition progresses, these sensations can become more constant. 


Some people also report a sensation akin to "pins and needles" or even sharp pain radiating up the arm. Over time, if left untreated, there can be decreased grip strength, making everyday tasks like holding a cup or writing challenging.


What Are the Potential Risk Factors of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Certain situations and conditions elevate the risk of developing CTS. Obesity, repetitive hand use, wrist trauma, and certain illnesses can heighten the risk. There's also a genetic component; some people naturally have a smaller carpal tunnel, making them more susceptible.


What Is the Significance of the Median Nerve?

The median nerve is crucial for both sensation and movement in parts of the hand. Its compression can not only cause discomfort but also functional limitations, emphasizing the need for early intervention.


What Is Tendonitis?

Tendonitis, unlike CTS, affects the tendons, which are tough, flexible bands of fibrous tissue connecting muscles to bones.


What Are the Causes of Tendonitis?

Tendonitis refers to the inflammation or irritation of a tendon. It's often a result of repetitive, minor impact on the affected area or from a sudden, more serious injury. Some common activities leading to wrist tendonitis include gardening, painting, or continuous computer work.


What Are the Symptoms of Tendonitis and How Are They Different from Carpal Tunnel?

While there's some symptom overlap with CTS, tendonitis often presents as pain directly over the tendon, which might intensify with movement. The area might be tender to touch, and in some cases, there might be mild swelling or a burning sensation.


Where Else Can Tendonitis Occur?

While this article focuses on wrist tendonitis, it's essential to note that tendonitis can affect various body parts, including the elbows (tennis elbow), heels (Achilles tendonitis), and shoulders (rotator cuff tendonitis).


Both Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Tendonitis underscore the importance of attentive hand care, especially in our increasingly digitized world. Recognizing their distinctions aids in better diagnosis, treatment, and, ultimately, quality of life.


What Are the Key Differences Between Carpal Tunnel and Tendonitis?

The similarities in symptoms between Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) and Tendonitis can often lead to confusion or misdiagnosis. However, distinguishing between them is critical to ensure proper treatment and a full recovery.


How Do the Symptoms of Carpal Tunnel and Tendonitis Overlap?

Both CTS and tendonitis can manifest as pain, numbness, or tingling in the wrist and hand. The discomfort might escalate during specific activities, like gripping an object, typing, or even resting. Given this overlap, one might mistakenly attribute tendonitis pain to CTS and vice versa.


What Are the Distinguishing Features of Carpal Tunnel?

CTS typically causes numbness or tingling in the thumb, index finger, middle finger, and the radial half of the ring finger, which are all precisely the areas the median nerve services. The discomfort might extend up the forearm towards the shoulder. Night-time symptoms, such as pain or the feeling of the hand "falling asleep," are also more typical of CTS.


What Are the Distinguishing Features of Tendonitis?

Tendonitis often results in localized pain directly over the affected tendon, which may intensify during movement. There may be swelling, warmth, and a gritty sensation with tendon movement. The pain is usually more pronounced in the morning and can ease as the tendon warms up with activity, only to flare up again with overuse.


How Do You Diagnose and Treat Carpal Tunnel and Tendonitis?

A healthcare professional will typically start with a clinical examination, considering the patient’s history and symptoms. For CTS, diagnostic tools like nerve conduction studies or electromyography can pinpoint median nerve compression. For tendonitis, ultrasound or MRI might be employed to visualize inflammation or tears in the tendon.


An accurate diagnosis is paramount to avoid unnecessary treatments or interventions. Each condition requires distinct therapies, and a misdiagnosis can lead to prolonged discomfort or further complications.


Once accurately diagnosed, both Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Tendonitis have a range of treatment modalities, depending on the severity and individual patient needs.


What Are Conservative Treatments for Carpal Tunnel and Tendonitis?

Initial treatments often involve conservative approaches. These may include rest, immobilization with splints or braces, over-the-counter pain relievers, and lifestyle modifications to avoid aggravating activities.


What Are Specific Treatments for Carpal Tunnel?

Specific treatments for Carpal Tunnel include:

  • Wrist Splinting:Night splints can help relieve nocturnal symptoms.

  • Corticosteroids:Injections can reduce inflammation and alleviate symptoms, especially in the early stages.

  • Surgery:Severe cases where conservative treatments fail might necessitate surgery to relieve pressure on the median nerve.

What Are Specific Treatments for Carpal Tunnel?

If you are diagnosed with tendonitis, your doctor may recommend:

  • Physical Therapy:Exercises can help strengthen the tendon and surrounding muscles, thereby alleviating symptoms and preventing recurrence.

  • Corticosteroid Injections: These can help in reducing inflammation but are used with caution due to potential tendon weakening.

  • Shock Wave Therapy: This innovative approach uses sound waves to stimulate healing in the tendon.

How Can You Prevent and Manage Carpal Tunnel and Tendonitis?

The hands and wrists are intricate parts of our anatomy, frequently subjected to strain due to repetitive tasks, heavy lifting, or improper ergonomics. But with mindfulness and the right preventative measures, protecting them from conditions like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) and Tendonitis is possible. 


The following are some ways to prevent CTS and tendonitis and manage both symptoms. 

  1. Ergonomic Workspaces: Ensuring your workspace is tailored to your body mechanics can significantly minimize undue stress on your wrists and hands. For instance, adjustable chairs, keyboard and mouse pads, and even standing desks can promote proper posture and wrist alignment.

  2. Regular Breaks: When involved in repetitive tasks such as typing, taking short breaks every hour to stretch your hands, fingers, and wrists can prevent strain and allow muscles to relax.

  3. Strengthening Exercises: Hand and wrist exercises can bolster the muscles, ensuring they're more resilient to wear and tear. Simple exercises like wrist flexor stretches, tendon glides, or even squeezing a stress ball can make a world of difference in long-term health.

  4. Mindful Lifting: Use proper techniques to lift heavy objects. Distribute the weight evenly across both hands, and always ensure you're lifting with your legs and not just your wrists.

  5. Avoid Overexertion: It's essential to recognize your body's signals. If you're feeling persistent pain or discomfort, it might be a sign to ease off a particular activity, modify your technique, or seek medical guidance.

  6. Stay Informed: Understand the early symptoms of both CTS and Tendonitis. Being aware and seeking timely intervention can prevent long-term complications or the need for more invasive treatments.

Wrapping Up 

Understanding the differences between carpal tunnel and tendonitis is vital for effective treatment and prevention. Equipping yourself with knowledge and integrating preventative measures can pave the way for optimal wrist and hand health.


Rheumatoid arthritis - Symptoms and causes | Mayo Clinic

Diabetes - Symptoms and causes | Mayo Clinic

Obesity - Symptoms and causes | Mayo Clinic

Electromyography (EMG) | Johns Hopkins Medicine

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