Is cracking your knuckles bad for your hands? What exactly is carpal tunnel syndrome? A local hand surgeon talks about these hand health issues.
If someone tells you cracking your knuckles leads to arthritis, tell them that Dr. Jessica Frankenhoff says otherwise. Frankenhoff is a specialist in Carpal tunnel syndrome and hand-related surgery at Stony Point Surgery Center. She said that the sound we hear when we “crack” our knuckles is not cracking at all, but instead popped “air bubbles from a created vacuum” surrounding the knuckles. Despite those who believe otherwise, Frankenhoff said “it doesn’t hurt your hand.” However, about 3% of women and 2% of men will develop a specific hand pain: Carpal tunnel syndrome.
A lot of us say Carpal tunnel as a blanket phrase to describe general hand pain, like soreness from prolonged keyboard typing (about 68% of Americans use a computer for work). However, Carpal tunnel syndrome is a very specific condition and isn’t caused by typing. “There is no correlation between typing1 and Carpal tunnel,” said Frankenhoff. “Typing actually helps prevent Carpal tunnel.”
The Carpal tunnel is a narrow space in the wrist that tendons and nerves pass through. Carpal tunnel syndrome develops when nerves and tendons become inflamed, creating pressure in the wrist. “Because there is a fixed space” in the Carpal tunnel, said Frankenhoff, “the pressure goes up and collapses the blood vessels.” This causes tingling, numbness, and pain that can even spread to the shoulder.
Frankenhoff said tingling is an inevitable symptom of Carpal tunnel syndrome, which helps her to distinguish Carpal tunnel from general hand pain. The tingling occurs due to a lack of blood flow to the hands (people will often shake their hands to stimulate needed blood flow). “Eventually the tingling progresses and you get permanent numbness.” The numbness can turn into pain within months, or take several years. While some have Carpal tunnel syndrome in one hand, Frankenhoff said most have it simultaneously occur in both. Some can alleviate minimal discomfort by wearing splints at night. More intense Carpal tunnel pain requires surgery.
“The surgery itself is literally cutting the ligament,” said Frankenhoff. “That’s enough to alleviate the pressure.” Frankenhoff said that this surgery has always been her most common procedure, and that recurrence post-surgery is extremely rare. A way to curb the likelihood of developing Carpal tunnel syndrome is to watch your weight.
“A lot of people I see do have diabetes,” said Frankenhoff. She said that obese individuals also have increased odds of developing Carpal tunnel syndrome, as do women.2 While she has operated on people in their 20s and 30s, Carpal tunnel syndrome is “most common when you get past [your] 40s.” She said there is one activity that people can do to prevent developing painful Carpal tunnel: yoga. “Yoga is the one thing that has actually been shown to help.”
Disclaimer: Stony Point Surgery Center is an RVANews advertiser
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photo by Josep Ma. Rosell