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You’re sitting at your desk typing, checking your emails and ignoring the tingling or numbness sensation you’ve been experiencing lately in your hand and wrist. Then, all of the sudden, you feel a sharp, shooting pain through your wrist and up your arm.

Was it just a passing cramp? Or is it carpal tunnel syndrome?

“If you’ve been feeling tingling or numbness in your hand and arm for a period of time, it’s likely you may have carpal tunnel syndrome, which is caused by a pinched nerve in your wrist,” said Leslie Lyness, D.O., a neurosurgeon at Geisinger-Community Medical Center, Scranton.

The median nerve runs from the forearm into the palm of your hand. It controls sensations to your palm side of the thumb and fingers in addition to impulses to some small muscles in your hand that allow you to move your thumb and fingers. This nerve is housed within the carpal tunnel – a narrow passageway of ligaments and bones at the base of your hand.

“Sometimes thickening from irritated tendons or swelling can narrow the tunnel, which can cause the median nerve to become pressed or squeezed, leading to carpal tunnel syndrome,” Dr. Lyness said.

With this condition, you may feel pain, weakness or numbness in your hand and wrist, which radiates up your arm. These sensations could potentially be caused by other health conditions, but carpal tunnel syndrome is the most common cause for that nerve to become compressed.

“Typically, anything that crowds, irritates or compresses your median nerve in the carpal tunnel space can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome,” said Dr. Lyness. “That can include a wrist fracture as well as swelling from trauma, but the most common cause is forceful or repetitive hand movements, hand-arm vibration, or working for long periods in the same or awkward positions.”

Carpal tunnel syndrome typically starts gradually and, without treatment, can worsen over time.

“Initial symptoms include numbness or tingling in your thumb, index and middle fingers. This feeling may come and go. You may also feel discomfort in your wrist and hand. These sensations often cause people to ‘shake out’ their hands to relieve the symptoms. But as it progresses, the numb feeling may become constant,” Dr. Lyness said.

Some people experience weakness in their hand and have a tendency to drop things.

“This symptom can be caused by the numbness or by a weakness in the thumb’s pinching muscles, which are also controlled by the median nerve,” Dr. Lyness explained.

If you’re experiencing these symptoms persistently and if they’re interfering with your normal daily activities and sleep, you should see your doctor.

“If you leave carpal tunnel syndrome untreated, it can lead to permanent nerve and muscle damage,” cautioned Dr. Lyness.

Some people with carpal tunnel syndrome are able to ease discomfort by taking breaks more frequently to rest their hands as well as avoiding any activities that make their symptoms worse. You can reduce occasional swelling with ice packs. If none of these treatments work, it’s time to visit your physician.