Carpal Tunnel vs Arthritis – Symptoms, Causes, Differences

Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), also referred to as median nerve compression or median nerve entrapment, occurs when the median nerve, one of the principal nerves to the hand, is compressed or squeezed as it travels through the wrist. This pressure leads to symptoms.

CTS usually affects the index, thumb, and middle fingers and is especially troublesome at night. It may come and go at first and can affect both or one hand. At the start of this condition, the process is reversible. However, over time, the insulation on the nerves may wear away, and permanent nerve damage may happen.

This syndrome is unusual among people aged 20 years or less but the prevalence increases with age, and it is more frequent among women than men. Approximately 5 percent of people in the US have CTS.


Common symptoms include:

  • a weakness of the hand;
  • numbness;
  • referred or radiated pain into the shoulder and arm;
  • pins and needles;
  • darting pains from the wrist;
  • pain, especially at night;
  • the little finger is unaffected.


It is not a problem with the nerve itself but is usually the result of a combination of factors that reduce the available space for the median nerve within the carpal tunnel.

A number of things increase the risk of developing this syndrome, including:

  • certain injuries to the wrist;
  • making the same wrist movements;
  • making the same hand movements over and over, particularly if the wrist is bent down;
  • hormonal changes during pregnancy;
  • certain health conditions, like – an underactive thyroid gland or diabetes;
  • some drugs, especially anastrozole  and exemestane;
  • some rare diseases including – sarcoidosis, amyloidosis (a disease which occurs when amyloid builds up in the organs), leukemia, and multiple myeloma;
  • some families carry a genetic characteristic for a naturally smaller carpal tunnel.


In mild cases of CTS, symptoms can be treated with:

  • physical therapy;
  • wearing a wrist splint;
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs;
  • ice on the area;
  • avoiding activities that cause symptoms;
  • resting the wrist between physical activity.

Surgery is another treatment option but it is only used when other non-surgical treatments have not improved the symptoms and symptoms are severe and prohibit you from performing normal tasks.


Arthritis means joint inflammation, however, the term is used to describe approximately 200 conditions that affect the tissues which surround the joints and other connective tissue. It can be debilitating when it affects the hands and fingers and it can affect any joint in the human body.

The most frequent form is osteoarthritis, a disorder in which the protective cushioning between the joints – the cartilage, wears out.

From 2013 to 2015, about 54.4 million American adults have been told by a healthcare professional that they had some type of arthritis.


Common symptoms may include:

  • tenderness and swelling around the wrist and in the knuckles;
  • pain in all or some of the joints, including joints of the wrists, fingers, and thumbs;
  • weak grip;
  • the growth of bony knobs on finger joints;
  • difficulty moving the fingers;
  • numbness in fingers;
  • joint stiffness, that may be more pronounced especially in the morning;
  • red joints;
  • an ache when you use the hands;
  • fingers that look like “swollen sausages.”

Note – these symptoms typically develop over time, however, they may also appear suddenly.


Causes usually include:

Hereditary Predisposition

According to data, if blood relatives suffered from this painful condition, then their descendants have increased chances to be affected by it.

Working Conditions

It may affect the state of the joints. For instance, arthritis in the fingers is believed to be a professional disease of jewelers, seamstresses, tennis players, and all other individuals whose work keeps their hands in a lot of tension.

Other Diseases

These may include – rheumatism, psoriasis, lupus, gout, diabetes, and tuberculosis.


The injury could be caused by a vehicle accident, sports, a military injury, or a fall. Even if you think that you have cured a certain injury, there may be some physical sequelae that can make you prone to this condition.

Infectious Diseases

Many individuals develop this condition after having a sore throat, that was caused by staph or strep, and mainly due to improper treatment of the disease.


Treatments usually include:

  • surgical operations;
  • biologic medications;
  • immune-altering medications;
  • pain medications, like – ibuprofen or acetaminophen;
  • paraffin wax dips;
  • cold-pack application;
  • splinting.

Hand Exercises

Movement can help to keep tendons and ligaments flexible, which can help improve hand function as well as it can help strengthen the muscles which support the hand joints.

Pain-Relieving Creams

Ointments like – Aspercreme (salycin), Arthricare (capsaicin), Flexall (menthol), and Bengay (salicylate) can be applied to the skin over the affected area and provide some relief of the symptoms.


Choosing a diet rich in antioxidants, that includes – fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and herbs, can help reduce inflammation levels in the body.

Carpal Tunnel vs Arthritis – Differences

Both these conditions have similar symptoms with potential culprits for hand numbness and pain. However, the numbness and tingling of carpal tunnel syndrome distinguish themselves from arthritis pain since repetitive motion triggers it, and it extends up the forearm.

Images credit – Shutterstock

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