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Do I Have Carpal Tunnel or Arthritis?

August 24, 2020

patient's finger being examined by doctor with glove on

Both arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome can affect the wrists and cause pain. Since the two conditions overlap, many patients are left wondering if they have carpal tunnel or arthritis. If you identify with this concern, our doctors can assess you to provide the appropriate diagnosis.

At Orthopaedic Specialists of Austin, serving Austin, TX, Cedar Park, TX, and surrounding communities, we use state-of-the-art technology to examine patients and provide the best treatment options. When medication does not work, we can perform hand surgery in-house to minimize pain and restore your quality of life. During a consultation, we will go over all of the available options.

What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

The median nerve runs through the arm into the carpal tunnel located in the wrist. When there is pressure on the median nerve, you can develop carpal tunnel syndrome. Most patients first feel numbness in their hands and also pain. At this point, many patients decide to visit us for an assessment.

What Is Arthritis?

Arthritis is an inflammation of the joints. While the disease can affect virtually any joint, patients often develop arthritis in the hands and wrists. Various factors can cause arthritis. For example:

  • The immune system can attack the joints.
  • Cartilage breaks down as patients get older.
  • Uric acid crystals build up in the blood.
  • A previous injury or trauma can damage joints.

Assessing Your Symptoms

To determine if you have carpal tunnel or arthritis, our doctors evaluate your symptoms. The most common symptoms of carpal tunnel include:

  • Weakness in the hands and trouble holding items
  • Tingling sensation that moves up the arm to the shoulder
  • Burning or numbing sensation in the wrist, palm, thumb, index, or middle finger

Since there are various types of arthritis, symptoms can take on many forms. Our surgeons check for:

  • Swelling in the joints of the wrist or fingers
  • Stiff joints
  • Redness or a warm sensation
  • Limited range of motion

Location of Pain

Carpal tunnel typically affects one or both wrists. In some cases, carpal tunnel can affect the shoulders. With arthritis, you can experience pain in any of the finger or wrist joints. It can be difficult to tell which condition you have based on location, so we recommend that patients come into our practice.


We have several diagnostic tools to determine whether you have arthritis or carpal tunnel. To check if you have arthritis, our doctors can perform a comprehensive examination and also draw blood to check for certain indicators. X-rays are also effective for diagnosing arthritis.

For carpal tunnel, we can perform a physical assessment. We commonly check for Tinel's sign to see if you have any nerve issues by tapping lightly on the impacted nerve. If we perform a Phalen test, the patient places their flexed elbows on a table and allows their wrists to drop into a flexed position on their own. Patients hold this position for about a minute.

Our surgeons can also use ultrasound on the wrist. The advanced types of imaging provides the doctor with a more detailed view of the nerve to see if there has been any damage. The ultrasound can determine if the nerve has been flattened or enlarged.

Treatment Options

For carpal tunnel patients, anti-inflammatory drugs and pain medications can be helpful to reduce pain. Additionally, our doctors provide corticosteroid injections that work well for some patients.

For individuals who want a more natural approach, a splint or brace can stabilize the wrist to relieve discomfort. Heat and cold therapy are easy and effective ways to provide relief. Patients who are interested in restoring strength and flexibility can try physical therapy. However, if non-surgical and therapeutic options do not work, we might recommend surgery.

Treating arthritis can be similar to carpal tunnel. Arthritis patients have an array of effective pain meds and anti-inflammatory drugs available to them. Our doctors can adjust medication as needed to provide individuals with the most relief. We can also inject affected joints with steroids to reduce pain and minimize swelling. There are also various surgical options for those who need additional treatment.

Schedule a Consultation

Whether you believe you have carpal tunnel or arthritis, our doctors can examine and diagnose you in-house. You can schedule a consultation by sending us a message or contact our office at (512) 476-2830.