Wrist Pain: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome or a Trapped Nerve?

Wrist Pain Splint

Why Does my Wrist Hurt?

I came across a tweet the other day saying “the wrist pain, it’s either a trapped nerve or carpal tunnel”. This got me thinking, do most people with wrist pain think a trapped nerve is different from carpal tunnel syndrome? Do they know that in a way these two situations are different, but also not?

Does that sounds confusing to read? Sorry let me explain my thinking to you. Today I want to look at wrist pain from the angle of a trapped nerve being the source of pain. Below I will discuss the difference between a trapped nerve in wrist pain and carpal tunnel syndrome. I will then show you how ultimately they are related and how to treat your wrist pain.

Pain In Your Wrist?

Have you got a pain in your wrist area at the moment? Are you wondering if you have a pinched nerve causing the pain?

Some types of painful wrists can be coming from a specific nerve in your body. So we could be talking about a compressed nerve at the wrist, like the median nerve. Or a referred pain shooting down to the wrist area from an area higher up in the neck where the nerve is stuck.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Let me start with this common type of wrist injury. Carpal tunnel is when there is a problem localised in the wrist.

The carpal tunnel contains the median nerve. The pain and dysfunction you get with carpal tunnel syndrome is due to excess pressure on this median nerve.

The contents of the carpal tunnel include:

  • Median nerve,
  • Tendons:
    Flexor digitorum superficialis
    Flexor digitorum profundus
    Flexor pollicis longus.

Carpal Tunnel Causes

Typically it is a repetitive strain injury of the wrist that is the major cause for carpal tunnel. This could be from holding prolonged wrist postures working on the computer or a repetitive movement like a carpenter turning a screwdriver.

There are times when other conditions cause carpal tunnel like:

  • Diabetes,
  • Thyroid problems
  • Pregnancy.

This means that wrist pain of yours could be a sign of other health changes happening your body.

Stop, Now Here is a Difference

So far I have been telling you about the median nerve being trapped causing wrist pain. That is very different from someone with a trapped nerve in neck problem shooting pain into the wrist. The cause of a compressed nerve in the neck is likely to be from an arthritis in the neck joints or herniated disc in the neck.

Have you ever heard of trigger points? A trigger point is basically a muscle knot. Having one of these types of muscle knots can send pain into your wrist. This is called a referred pain along a nerve supplying the wrist. Then there is another common cause of wrist pain. This is called de Quervains Tenosynovitis.

What I’m trying to show you here is a trapped cervical nerve root and a trapped median nerve are both nerves. However, each cause of wrist pain needs to be dealt differently.

Carpal Tunnel Symptoms

Ok so now you are probably wondering “How do I know if the wrist pain is from a pinched nerve in my neck or pinched nerve in my wrist?”

Let me start with the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome.

pinched median nerve in the wrist numbness distribution

Skin Supply Area of the Median Nerve

The median nerve is quite distinctive in supplying the first three fingers of your hand. So that is your thumb, index and middle fingers.

It controls the sensation and motor control to those fingers. You can see the area of median nerve supply in the picture of the hand on the right.

This means the symptoms of carpal tunnel should include:

  • Pins and needles in those three fingers,
  • Weakness in your hand grip,
  • Pain around your wrist possibly going up the forearm (not above the elbow),
  • Swollen fingers or palm feeling,
  • Change in hot/cold temperature feeling of the hand.

These are different from a nerve entrapment in your neck. With this situation you are more likely to experience neck pain, restricted head movement, pain going from the shoulder blade into the arm down to the wrist not just at the wrist, with weakness in the upper arm and maybe your grip strength.

Basically with the median nerve compression your neck won’t be sore. With a trapped nerve in your neck scenario there should be.

How To Test Where the Pain is Coming From

This is a very important part in your quest in order to get rid of the wrist pain. If you start treating the wrong area then the pain in your wrist will not get better.

Some specific Carpal tunnel syndrome tests might include:

  • Tinels Sign
    When your doctor compresses or taps over the median nerve in the wrist to reproduce your symptoms.
  • Nerve Conduction Studies
    This is when electricity is put into the median nerve to see how it reacts. It can test to see if the conduction is slow cos it is trapped. I have written about nerve conduction studies before.
  • Phalens Test
    An orthopaedic test where you hold you the back of your hands together and make your wrist bend forward. Holding the wrists in this position compresses the median nerve in the carpal tunnel reproducing the symptoms. See how to do a phalens test in the video below.

Compare these signs to cervical radiculopathy tests, then it is NOT carpal tunnel syndrome when:

  • You have changes in the deep tendon reflexes of the bicep or triceps,
  • Weakness in your forearm, bicep, tricep or deltoid shoulder muscles,
  • Pain in when moving your neck or shoulder joints,
  • Positive pain with orthopaedic tests like Spurlings, L’Hermittes, or Neers and Hawkins.

Wrist Pain Treatment Options

The treatment options are different because the nerves affected are different between carpal tunnel syndrome and a pinched nerve in your neck.

Here are some simple carpal tunnel treatment options:

  • Cardiovascular Exercise: Some carpal tunnels can be from lack of general movement,
  • Stretches: Stretching your forearm muscles while at the desk,
  • Ergonomics: Changing your work station could help reduce the repetitive strain,
  • Splinting: Using a wrist splint when you sleep and work.

If you need more specific carpal tunnel exercises I found this ebook and videos for wrist pain.

Usually if conservative care does not work for you then your doctor will prescribe anti-inflammatories, perform a cortisone steroid injection or recommend wrist surgery. The goal is not to get to this point at all.

The Bottom Line

I hope I have answered the original question “the wrist pain, it’s either a trapped nerve or carpal tunnel.” for you. You can let me know what worked best for you with curing your carpal tunnel and did you start with the problem of treating the wrong area? Let me know in a comment below.

Image Credit: Some rights reserved by Chika
  • Tina Bullard

    I have a pinched nerve on C6 which has totally debilitated me. Cant sleep, pain in neck, shoulders arms, tingling in fingers thumbs etc. Just had nerve conduction tests done as muscles weak all over body and she thinks there may be a carpal tunnel issue (also) Can C6 trapped nerve cause carpal tunnell issues. I seem to tick CPT markers except I have tingling in all fingers

  • Have your doctors mentioned a possible ganglion cyst?

  • Sam

    Thanks for the info. please help me understand this : I have a small swelling at back of my wrist, looks like nerve overlap kind. unable to move wrist inwards and pain are my issues. On an average I spend 8 -10 hours on desktop. Found no issues in X-ray.

  • Karen white

    My son has been complaining about not being able to feel any heat sensation from his waist and down his right leg,he is only 14.could this be caused by a trapped nerve

  • Jancis

    I do have a neck problem and appreciate that cervical nerve entrapment and compression can cause pain along the nerve pathways, however I have read that CTS can radiate into the upper arm, and have had a steroid injection for the above. It worked a treat. Surely if the cause was cervial in origin then the steroids would not have been a successful treatment?

  • Thanks for the kind words and hope you get better soon.

  • Philomenafitz

    just to say once again thankyou for all the information

  • Philomenafitz

    i think this information was really helpfull in the understanding of the difference between a trapped nerve in the cervical spine and carpel tunnel ,i have been told by doctors that i have a trapped nerve in the cervical spine and your information has given me a greater understanding of the condition,it a very painful condition and hopefully i get it sorted soon ,thankyou