Carpal Tunnel Syndrome vs. Repetitive Stress Injury

What Are the Differences? Diagnosis, Prevention and Treatment

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome vs. Repetitive Stress InjuryIf you spend a lot of time at a keyboard and experience pain in your hands or wrist, you might think the terms “carpal tunnel syndrome” and “repetitive stress injury” are interchangeable. That’s not necessarily surprising, as both conditions are, according to many studies, increasingly common and both conditions share some similarities. They are, however, distinct medical conditions with somewhat different symptoms.

What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is a condition that occurs when you put pressure on the median nerve in your wrist, typically in ways that you have not done before. For example, you may use a power sander or other vibrating tool for a project, or you may take up a new musical instrument. (You can develop CTS from playing piano, guitar, or a wind instrument.) CTS is also often tied to weight gain, including weight gain associated with a pregnancy.

What Is Repetitive Stress?

A repetitive stress (or strain) injury (RSI) may involve the hand, wrist, or arm but can affect any area of the body. RSI is associated with performing repetitive tasks such as bending, squatting, grabbing, squeezing, lifting, or pressing. It can be tied to virtually any activity where you repeat a motion or action, whether at work or in a recreational sport. RSI is far more common as you age—approximately a quarter of individuals over the age of 41 report some type of repetitive stress or strain injury in their lifetime.

How Do the Symptoms of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Differ from Repetitive Stress?

When you are suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, you can expect to experience:

  • Pain or numbness in your wrist, hand, fingers, or forearm
  • A tingling or “pins and needles” feeling around your wrist and hands
  • Referred pain in your upper arm and shoulder
  • Weakness in your hand or wrist

With a repetitive strain or stress injury, you can experience the tingling sensation, as well as the loss of sensation or feeling, but you may also have a throbbing pain or tenderness in your joints and/or muscles.

How Can You Prevent Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

If you can avoid work or other activities that put stress on the median nerve, you’ll minimize the risk of CTS. If you cannot, try to find ways to relax your wrists more when you are engaged in those activities. Additionally, don’t put pressure on your wrists for extended periods of time. Schedule a 10–15-minute break every hour, or take a two-minute break every quarter hour.

How Can You Minimize the Risk of Repetitive Stress Injury?

The best measure to prevent RSI is exercise. Before you engage in any activity, stretch the muscles and connective tissue around the joints that you’ll be using. Regular breaks can also reduce the risk.

How Does Treatment Differ for CTS and RSI?

There are a number of treatment options for carpal tunnel syndrome, including rest, physical therapy, splints, immobilizing your wrist, and relieving pressure on the median nerve. Anti-inflammatory drugs can alleviate some discomfort by reducing fluid retention. Injections can reduce pain, and surgery may help, but typically only as a last resort.

To minimize the pain and discomfort caused by RSI, you can turn to:

  • Physical therapy
  • Ice and heat packs, used alternately for no more than 20 minutes
  • Massage therapy
  • Anti-inflammatory medication
Workplace injuries