Women are three times more likely to develop a painful condition in their hands and wrists known as carpal tunnel syndrome. Although the exact reason for this is now known, it may be because most women naturally have smaller bones in their wrists, leaving a narrower space through which the nerve and tendon can pass. Among the other causes of carpal tunnel syndrome is menopause.
What is carpal tunnel syndrome?
Carpal tunnel syndrome is the term used to describe a group of symptoms that include pain, swelling, tingling, and loss of strength in the hand and wrist. It is so named because there is a narrow groove or carpal tunnel composed of small bones in the wrist. A nerve (median nerve) and tendon pass through this tunnel from the forearm into the hand. If the tendon becomes irritated and swollen, it can put pressure on the median nerve. This results in the symptoms mentioned affecting the palm side of the thumb and fingers. Typically a person’s dominant hand is involved, but about half of all people with carpal tunnel syndrome have the condition in both hands.
The condition usually is first noticed at night, but as it progresses the symptoms occur during the day as well. The pain can travel from the wrist to the arm or down to the fingers. Weakness of the hands also can progress over time. Some individuals have difficulty picking up or grasping items with the affected hand or hands. Although the fingers may feel swollen, they are not.
If carpal tunnel syndrome is not treated, it can progress to a loss of feeling in some fingers. Thumb muscles may atrophy over time, and at some point people with the condition may have trouble distinguishing between hot and cold with their fingers.
How is carpal tunnel syndrome associated with menopause?
Although carpal tunnel syndrome can be caused by a variety of factors, the hormonal fluctuations associated with perimenopause and menopause can put women at greater risk of developing this painful condition. In fact, women between the ages of 45 and 54 are those at higher risk of carpal tunnel syndrome. Some postmenopausal women also have been shown to have enlarged wrist structures that can press on the nerve in their wrist, causing significant pain and trouble with movement.
Carpal tunnel syndrome may be caused by a variety of factors, but in some cases it is unknown:
- Repetitive motion: If you have a job or hobby that involves doing the same movements with your hands and wrists repeatedly, you may be at greater risk of developing the condition. Some of the possibilities include assembly line workers, carpenters, keyboarders, violinists, knitters, golfers, and gardeners.
- Genetics: The carpal tunnel is physically smaller in some individuals.
- Trauma: A sprain or a broken wrist can increase the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Medical conditions: Having obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, diabetes, or hypothyroidism increases the risk of having carpal tunnel syndrome.
How to manage carpal tunnel syndrome naturally
The most obvious way to manage carpal tunnel syndrome is to rest the affected hand(s). This can be challenging for anyone whose work requires the repetitive movements. Sometimes modifying how you use the hand may reduce the risk of further damage. Use of a splint brace can be helpful, although significant rest periods are still recommended.
Other ways to manage carpal tunnel syndrome without the use of medications or surgery include:
- See a chiropractor. A chiropractor can adjust the wrist bones and realign the carpal tunnel region, which will remove the pressure on the nerve.
- Do exercises. You can get relief and restore range of motion by doing hand/wrist exercises, such as nerve gliding exercises and stretching your wrist. Talk with a physical therapist or sports medicine professional, or check out any of the many exercises available on YouTube.
- Fix your posture. If you have a desk job, it can be helpful to raise or lower your desk or adjusting your computer screen so there is less pressure on your hands and wrists.
- Eat anti-inflammatory foods. Focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, wild-caught fish (source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids), flaxseeds, chia seeds, beans, green drinks that contain sea veggies and grasses (e.g., wheat grass), and water—8 ounces every two hours to help reduce fluid retention and relieve pain.
- Avoid inflammatory foods. Many foods that are part of the Standard American Diet (SAD) cause and promote inflammation throughout the body. These include processed foods that typically contain high amounts of added sugar and/or salt, processed meats, alcohol, processed grains (cereals, white flour and white rice), especially those containing gluten.
- Try supplements. Nutrients that can reduce inflammation include vitamin B6 (100 mg 3 times daily), bromelain (500 mg 3 times between meals), magnesium and calcium combination (500 mg calcium, 250 mg magnesium), and ginkgo biloba (120 mg twice daily).
- Rub in essential oils. A 2018 clinical trial found that rubbing lavender essential oil on the area of carpal tunnel syndrome and wearing an orthotic provided better relief than the orthotic and a placebo. Two other essential oils that may prove beneficial include cypress (enhances circulation) and wintergreen (pain relief).
When to see your doctor
If your symptoms do not improve despite bracing and other natural remedies, or if you experience numbness in one or both hands or a worsening grip, see your doctor.
Women in menopause may experience carpal tunnel syndrome for the first time in their lives. Natural remedies, especially resting the affected hand(s), may provide adequate relief.