Symptoms and Signs of Carpal Tunnel vs. Arthritis

Medical Author:
Medically Reviewed on 5/26/2022

Doctor's Notes on Carpal Tunnel vs. Arthritis

Carpal tunnel is a syndrome of median nerve irritation in the wrist that leads to numbness, tingling, and weakness of the hand, usually affecting the thumb, index, and middle fingers. In contrast, arthritis is a rheumatic disease that can cause inflammation and pain in the joints almost anywhere in the body and/or in muscles or fibrous tissue. There are over 100 forms of arthritis.

Carpal tunnel causes are due to inflammation of the median nerve in the carpal canal in the wrist. Risk factors for carpal tunnel include wrist fracture, diabetes, pregnancy, arthritis, alcoholism, and extreme wrist flexion and extension; the frequency and duration of repetitive wrist use is not clear. Potential causes of the many forms of arthritis are variable; injury, abnormal metabolism (gout), genetics (osteoarthritis), infections (Lyme disease), and an overactive immune system (rheumatoid arthritis) are examples.

What Are the Treatments of Carpal Tunnel vs. Arthritis?

If carpal tunnel treatments are started early (rest, cold packs, avoid activities that increase symptoms), it is possible that it can resolve the problem. Other non-surgical therapy includes

Surgical therapy:

  • Endoscopic surgery: device to see inside the carpal tunnel and to cut the tunnel to remove pressure on the median nerve
  • Open surgery: palm incision to cut the tunnel to release the nerve

Treatments for arthritis uses NSAIDs and steroids like those used for carpal tunnel but also include the following;

  • DMARDs (disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs)
  • Biologic agents
  • Targeted therapy

Another difference between arthritis therapy and carpal tunnel is that surgery for severe arthritis may include the following:

  • Joint repair
  • Joint replacement
  • Joint fusion

Carpal tunnel surgery does not involve the above arthritis surgery.

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.