Swelling – everywhere – is one of the most common symptoms of pregnancy. Patients often notice extra puffiness in their face, legs, and feet. But for some women, swelling manifests inside the wrist, resulting in carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS).
During pregnancy, your blood volume doubles. That extra fluid increases pressure and swelling in the blood vessels throughout your body. In tight spaces such as the carpal tunnel area of the wrist – through which nine tendons and one nerve pass – the swelling can compress the median nerve, which runs to the hand.
The median nerve gives sensation to the palm-side surface of thumb, index, and middle fingers, and half the ring finger. It's also responsible for helping to move the muscles in the hand that bend your fingers.
Nerve compression can cause pain, tingling, and numbness in the wrist and hand, which may increase when you're trying to sleep. Pregnancy may be the first time CTS symptoms arise or the last straw that causes a woman to see her doctor for ongoing symptoms.
The good news is that pregnancy-safe treatment is available, and symptoms typically subside for many patients after the baby arrives.
I've invited my colleague, Rupali Kumar, M.D., from UT Southwestern's Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) team to discuss CTS symptoms and treatment options.
Carpal tunnel symptoms in pregnancy
When the median nerve is compressed during pregnancy, symptoms present as they would in any patient:
● Numbness and tingling
● Burning sensation
● Pain in the wrist or hand
At the onset of CTS, symptoms may come and go. But when numbness or weakness occurs frequently or constantly, that's a potential sign of nerve damage.
In severe cases, patients may have weakened grip strength or decreased finger dexterity. For example, you might have trouble picking up small objects with your fingers, opening jars, or buttoning clothes.
Related reading: 5 weird pregnancy symptoms you might not know about
Diagnosing carpal tunnel in pregnancy
We often can diagnose CTS by talking with you about your symptoms and medical history. If your symptoms are severe, we may recommend an electrodiagnostic study (EMG) to confirm the diagnosis and measure nerve function in the arm, wrist, and hand. An EMG can tell us whether you have nerve damage, how severe it is, and whether it might be reversible with intervention.
The doctor will attach small electrode stickers to your hand and arm in different places and apply low levels of electrical stimulation to gauge the nerve activity. The doctor may also insert a fine acupuncture-like needle in certain areas of the arm and hand to test muscle electrical activity. The study can be a little uncomfortable, but should not cause lasting pain.
Pregnancy-safe treatment options
With CTS, it's best to start with the most conservative therapies. That's especially true in pregnancy. Here is a list of carpal tunnel treatment options that are safe for pregnancy, from least to most invasive.
The first-line treatment is to immobilize the wrist in a neutral position to limit the range of flexion or extension. We use a neutral wrist splint with a metal bar inside that prevents the wrist from moving up, down, or side-to-side but allows the fingers to move.
Splinting gives the median nerve a break and can help alleviate swelling, which can allow mild to moderate nerve damage to heal. However, it's tough to wear a splint all day and do everyday activities. Your doctor may recommend wearing it while sleeping and as much as you can during the day.
Hand and wrist therapy can sometimes help relieve symptoms and prevent further nerve damage. A PM&R doctor or occupational therapist can create a personalized plan for you.
Therapy may include wrist and finger range of motion and strengthening movements, massage, and nerve gliding techniques. We may also recommend desensitization to decrease nerve pain, including alternating hot and cold water baths.
Topical numbing agents can relieve symptoms, but these ointments won't get to the root of the problem. Some patients may benefit from pain relief injections, which include a combination of steroids and a local anesthetic injected around the median nerve under ultrasound guidance.
However, if there are other therapies to try, we typically avoid prescribing steroids during pregnancy to avoid side effects.
Check with your Ob/Gyn before using any over-the-counter or prescribed topical medications. Our PM&R doctors will consult with your Ob/Gyn prior to recommending medication during pregnancy.
Surgery, in severe cases
Carpal tunnel release surgery is reserved for severe cases. In this procedure, a surgeon will cut the ligament that presses on the carpal tunnel, making more room for the median nerve and tendons. This usually improves function and pain.
Generally, we recommend waiting until after pregnancy to have surgeries that are not urgent. If wrist pain or hand weakness severely limits your daily function, talk with your Ob/Gyn about the risks and benefits of having carpal tunnel surgery prior to delivery.
When will symptoms improve?
After delivery, your fluid levels and the extra pressure in your blood vessels will decrease. As such, your symptoms will likely improve or resolve.
That being said, new mothers use their hands and wrists nearly constantly. Lifting, changing, and feeding the new baby may lead to worsened or new hand and wrist symptoms.
Let your Ob/Gyn know as soon as symptoms begin. If we catch carpal tunnel early enough, we can start conservative treatments to reduce the risk of nerve damage or lingering symptoms.
After pregnancy, keep an eye on your wrist health. You'll be lifting your baby a lot and making repetitive motions, which can lead to tendinopathies related to overuse.
Even if your new aches and pains don't seem overtly pregnancy-related, let your Ob/Gyn know. Pregnancy does strange things to the body, and your provider can help you find relief from painful or annoying symptoms.