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Carpal Tunnel Syndrome vs. Arthritis: What’s the Difference?

Carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis are two medical conditions that affect millions of people worldwide. And despite being distinct conditions with different causes and effects, there are enough similarities between the two that often have people confused.

If you’ve ever wondered why these conditions are so often conflated, and how you can differentiate them, this article is here to help you figure it out.

What is carpal tunnel syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is a nerve condition that affects the hand, fingers, wrist, and forearm. It occurs in the median nerve – an important sensory and motor nerve in the arm that ends in the hand. Carpal tunnel syndrome causes pressure or constriction on this nerve, which is contained in the carpal tunnel – a narrow passage that protects the nerves, tendons, and blood vessels that travel from your forearm to your hand.

Causes

There are a number of factors that lead to CTS, usually in combination with one another. Some may not explicitly cause the condition, but they can increase the risk of a pinched median nerve. These include:

  • Repeated movements of the hand and wrist can cause swelling of the tendons that may lead to pressure on the median nerve.
  • Inflammatory and nerve-damaging health conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and thyroid gland imbalance can increase the likelihood of CTS.
  • Anatomic specificity can also increase your chances of developing CTS, such as smaller carpal tunnels, bone deformities in the wrist, and wrist fractures and dislocations. Some of these traits can be hereditary, so CTS in the family may be a warning sign.
  • Women, pregnant people, obese people, and older people are all at higher risk of developing CTS.

Symptoms

This compression can result in pain, tingling, numbness, and weakness in the hand, fingers, and forearm. And over time, untreated CTS can lead to worsened symptoms, loss of sensation in the fingers and hands, and permanent nerve damage. It is vital to seek out diagnosis and proper treatment as early as possible.

What is arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis in human body illustration
Image by brgfx on Freepik

Arthritis refers to inflammation, swelling, and tenderness in the joints of the body. It can be relegated to one or several joints. But depending on the type of arthritis, this condition is not limited to joints – it can also affect skin, organs, and eyes.

There are over 100 different types of arthritis, with the two most common forms being osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, followed by gout and psoriatic arthritis. In some cases arthritis can take years to develop, worsening slowly over time. In others, it can come on very quickly, and seemingly overnight.

Osteoarthritis affects the cartilage of the joint, causing it to roughen and break down. This restricts movement in the joint, causes swelling, the formation of bony spurs, and alters the shape and position of joints and bones in the affected area.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease wherein your body’s immune system begins to turn on you, attacking the joints and causing them to swell and change shape. It can eventually affect bone, cartilage, tissue, and organs in the body.

Causes

There are a number of risk factors that contribute to arthritis, depending on the type. These tend to be:

  • Extra weight adds more stress to your joints, which can lead to inflammation. Obese people are at higher risk of developing arthritis.
  • Depending on your sex, you’ll have a higher likelihood of developing certain types of arthritis. For example, men are more susceptible to gout, whereas women have higher rates of rheumatoid arthritis.
  • The older you are, the more at-risk you are of developing many types of arthritis.
  • Hereditary patterns of arthritis. Genetics can leave people predisposed to developing arthritis.
  • Previous injuries. You are more likely to develop arthritis in joints that have previously sustained significant injury.

Symptoms

The major symptoms of arthritis are joint pain, swelling, and stiffness. But of course, there are many types of arthritis, and the symptoms you experience will depend on the type of arthritis. Other general symptoms of arthritis include:

  • Heat and redness in the joints
  • Worsened pain and stiffness in the mornings
  • Restricted joint movement
  • Muscle weakness and wasting

Rheumatoid Arthritis

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Inflammation in the eyes, mouth, blood vessels, and heart muscles
  • Can affect more than one joint on both sides of the body
  • Reduced red blood cell count

Osteoarthritis

  • Restricted range of motion
  • Joint instability
  • Clicking or popping sounds in the joint
  • Muscle weakness

Similarities

While CTS and arthritis are different conditions, they do share some similarities that can make them easy to confuse for one another.

The major similarity is how these conditions present themselves in the body. Both are typified by pain, swelling, and weakness in parts of the body, amongst other things. And both can cause pain in the same area – the hands, wrists, and fingers – depending on the type of arthritis.

Both CTS and some forms of arthritis can receive the same treatment too. Sufferers of both can be prescribed with:

  • Cortisone injections
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Splints and braces to support affected areas
  • Physical therapy

Differences

There are also major differences that distinguish these two conditions from each other.

  1. There are only three types of CTS, caused by: the swelling of the tendon lining in the wrist and forearm, the thickening of the transverse ligament, and thickened ligaments and swollen tendons pressing onto the median nerve. However, there are over 100 different types of arthritis that occur in different parts of the body with different causes and effects.
  2. Arthritis can occur in various parts of the body, however, CTS only affects the median nerve in the forearm, wrist, hands, and fingers.
  3. CTS is the result of nerve compression, whereas arthritis is defined by swelling and inflammation of the joints.
  4. Pain caused by CTS is typically worse at night, compared to the pain caused by arthritis which tends to be worse in the morning.
  5. Both conditions can require surgery in severe cases, but the surgical procedures required are very different. Surgery for CTS requires widening the space inside the carpal tunnel to accommodate the medial nerve. Surgery for arthritis can require joint replacement or reconstructive therapy, along with disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs).

While they have their similarities, understanding the difference between carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis is fairly simple once you learn more about these medical conditions. But however different they are, it’s important to know that both can have serious long-term effects on your health if they go untreated.

If you are struggling with either carpal tunnel syndrome or arthritis, and require surgical treatment or rehabilitative care, give our Atlanta-based team a call. At Kellie Middleton MD we offer orthopedic services including surgery, rehabilitation, pain management, and more. To book your first consultation, contact us at 770-509-4030 or fill in our online contact form.

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