Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) refers to a condition of the wrist that often results in pain, numbness, and weakness of the hand. It has a very distinctive pattern as noted in the diagram below, affecting the thumb, index, middle, and half of the ringer finger. As technology has progressed, carpal tunnel has become epidemic. It is generally caused by repetitive motions of the arm and hand that stimulates inflammation and swelling in the wrist. This swelling creates pressure on the delicate median nerve that innervates the hand. Like stepping on a garden hose, the nerve becomes choked and irritated with proper flow of the nerve being restricted.
In a study from the medical journal Brain, acupuncture was shown to work by literally rewiring the brain. The study was completed at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard’s teaching hospital. Using advanced imaging called Functional MRI (fMRI), researchers were able to see altered brain activity in patients suffering from carpal tunnel. They also noted a slowing of the median nerve itself.
Those who received traditional acupuncture not only experienced relief from their symptoms, but had objective changes in brain function. What surprised researchers was the fact that damaged sensory areas of the brain noted in the before MRI’s were partially repaired. This reveals a few amazing facts. First, carpal tunnel syndrome is more than just a structural problem in the wrist. As such, the traditional view that steroids or surgical release are the only options is invalid. Although some patients may require surgery, acupuncture provides a very safe and effective first option.
Below are some images from the study. Without getting into the details of fMRI, the yellow areas reveal brain activity. Look at the “B” line. The brain on the left is a healthy control. A few small areas of yellow are noted. The middle image is a patient suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome BEFORE treatment. Notice the large areas of bright yellow indicating altered activity. The brain on the right is the fMRI of this patient’s brain AFTER 5 weeks of acupuncture treatment, demonstrating normalized brain function. As you can see, the results were remarkable.
Now let me really blow your mind. Some of these patients received acupuncture in points located in the arm and hand of the side of symptoms, but other patients in the study received acupuncture on specific points of the opposite leg. Symptomatic improvement as well as fMRI changes and measurable improvement in nerve conduction velocity (nerve flow) were similar for both groups! The sham group, on the other hand, did not show improvement.
Here is what the authors had to say:
“Indeed, long-term acupuncture treatment in chronic neuropathic pain patients has been found to alter cortical somatosensory processing and produce beneficial changes in somatotopy.”
Translation? Acupuncture restores the brain’s sensory input in conditions involving nerve related pain. Good news for ALL sufferers dealing with chronic pain.
So how long do the results last? The study checked back with study participants three months later and found many patients maintained their improvement or actually continued to improve.
Let my patient Bonnie tell you her story:
“I suffered from chronic carpal tunnel syndrome sustained most likely from years of computer work. I had severe numbness and tingling in my right hand and sometimes in my left hand as well. Holding a fork or knife to eat was impossible without discomfort. I was constantly trying to ‘wake up’ my hand.
My family practice doctor referred me to occupational therapy and prescribed anti-inflammatory pills. I was also given a brace. Surgery was an option, but I was skeptical since I have known others who had hand surgery only to their regret.
When I drove into the parking lot of Dr. Perrine’s office for the first time, my fingers, like usual, were numb from gripping the steering wheel of my car. I was skeptical and tentative, but open to try something different for my hand problem. When I left the parking lot after my first acupuncture treatment I was convinced and hopeful that this was going to be my answer to a years-long problem. My first acupuncture treatment was nothing short of a miracle for me. My regular treatments significantly reduce my symptoms and have brought back full mobility to my hand so I can lead a normal life.”
As impressive the results of acupuncture may be for carpal tunnel, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. You must change the habits that brought it on from the start. Here are a few suggestions:
- Reduce your force and relax your grip. If your work involves a cash register or keyboard, for instance, hit the keys softly. For prolonged handwriting, use a big pen with an oversized, soft grip adapter and free-flowing ink.
- Take frequent breaks. Gently stretch and bend hands and wrists periodically. Alternate tasks when possible. This is especially important if you use equipment that vibrates or that requires you to exert a great amount of force.
- Watch your form. Avoid bending your wrist all the way up or down. A relaxed middle position is best. Keep your keyboard at elbow height or slightly lower.
- Improve your posture. Incorrect posture rolls shoulders forward, shortening your neck and shoulder muscles and compressing nerves in your neck. This can affect your wrists, fingers and hands.
- Change your computer mouse. Make sure that your computer mouse is comfortable and doesn’t strain your wrist.
My video below also demonstrates a few simple stretches you can do to help reduce wrist stressors.
Medical research continue to prove what millions of people have know for thousands of years, acupuncture works…naturally.