Carpal tunnel syndrome is a nerve condition that happens in your wrist and mostly affects your hand. This common condition happens when the median nerve — one of the main nerves that run from your arm to your hand — is pinched, squeezed, or damaged as it goes through the wrist.

Carpal tunnel syndrome can cause the following symptoms in the hand, wrist, and arm:

  • tingling
  • numbness
  • pain
  • burning
  • electric-shock feeling
  • weakness
  • clumsiness
  • loss of fine movement
  • loss of sensation

Arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome are two distinct conditions that can happen on their own. However, sometimes arthritis can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. This means that if you have arthritis in your wrist or hand, you might have a higher risk of getting carpal tunnel syndrome.

Just as it sounds, the carpal tunnel is a narrow tube or tunnel that runs through wrist bones called carpal bones. The carpal tunnel is only about an inch wide. The median nerve travels down your arm from the shoulder and runs through the carpal tunnel into your hand.

There are also nine tendons going through the carpal tunnel. This makes it a tight squeeze. Any amount of swelling in the tendons or changes to the bone can put pressure on or damage the median nerve.

This can make it harder for your brain to send nerve messages to your hand and fingers. The median nerve is the main power supply to the muscles in the hand, thumb, and fingers. Think of a garden hose that’s been squeezed or bent so there’s a kink in it.

Arthritis is a condition that affects one or more joints in your body. It can happen in any joint, including the knees, wrists, hands, and fingers. Arthritis causes symptoms that typically get worse with age, like:

  • pain
  • tenderness
  • stiffness
  • swelling
  • redness
  • warmth
  • decreased range of movement
  • lumps on the skin over the joints

There are several kinds of arthritis. The two main types of arthritis are:

Osteoarthritis

This kind of arthritis usually happens from normal wear and tear in the joints. It happens when cartilage — the protective and slippery “shock absorber” at the ends of bones — wears away. The bones in the joint then rub against each other leading to pain, stiffness, and other symptoms.

Osteoarthritis is more common in older adults, but it can happen in younger adults too. It mostly affects weight-bearing joints like the knees and ankles.

Rheumatoid arthritis

This kind of arthritis is an autoimmune disease where your immune system attacks the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis causes pain, swelling, and redness in your joints.

It can happen at any age in children and adults. While rheumatoid arthritis can affect knees, ankles, shoulders, and elbows, it typically affects smaller joints early in the course of the disease, such as:

  • wrists
  • hands
  • feet
  • fingers
  • toes

Arthritis can sometimes trigger carpal tunnel syndrome or make it worse. Carpal tunnel syndrome isn’t a kind of arthritis and doesn’t cause arthritis.

Any kind of arthritis in the wrist can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. This is because arthritis may cause:

  • swelling in the wrist
  • swelling in the tendons in the carpal tunnel
  • bony spurs or growth in the wrist bones (carpals) around the carpal tunnel

Key differences between carpal tunnel and osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis

Carpal tunnel Osteoarthritis Rheumatoid arthritis
Location Wrists, may be in one or both wrists Any joint, but usually larger joints, including wrists Any joint, but usually smaller joints, including wrists
Cause Repetitive movement and inflammationWear and tear, repetitive movement, inflammation Inflammation and joint damage
Pain in hand & wrist Thumb, index, and middle fingers, sometimes whole hand, wrist up to arm and even shoulder, neck Ends of finger joints, base of thumb Finger joints, base of thumb
Other symptoms Numbness, weakness, tingling in fingers and thumb, except for pinky finger Swelling, stiffness, tenderness, weakness Swelling, stiffness, tenderness, weakness
When Usually worse at night, in the morning, during certain activities (writing, typing, housework, etc.) or all day Pain when moving, stiffness after resting or sleeping Pain when moving, stiffness after resting or sleeping
Diagnosis Physical exam: Tinel’s sign, Phalen test, nerve conduction test, ultrasound Physical exam, X-ray Physical exam, blood test, X-ray
Treatment Splint or brace, pain medications, anti-inflammatory drugs, heat and cold therapy, corticosteroid injections, physical therapy, surgerySplint or brace, pain medications, anti-inflammatory drugs, heat and cold therapy, corticosteroid injections, physical therapy, surgery Splint or brace, pain medications, DMARDs, biologics, anti-inflammatory drugs, heat and cold therapy, corticosteroid injections, physical therapy, surgery

You won’t always be able to tell if you have carpal tunnel syndrome or arthritis. This is because they can happen at the same time and cause similar symptoms.

Other conditions and general factors may also raise your risk of carpal tunnel syndrome. These include:

  • wrist fracture or injury
  • repetitive motions like typing or painting
  • doing heavy work with your hands and wrists
  • using heavy or vibrating tools
  • having obesity or being overweight
  • hormonal changes in pregnancy
  • underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism)
  • diabetes
  • genetics
  • medications, like some breast cancer treatments

See your doctor as soon as possible if you have any kind of pain, numbness, or other symptoms in your hands and wrists. It’s important to treat carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis as early as possible.

Waiting too long to see your doctor can lead to damage or complications to bones and nerves in the wrists and hands.

You can have both carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis in your wrists. However, they’re two separate conditions. Arthritis can sometimes lead to or worsen carpal tunnel syndrome.

Treatment for both of these conditions might be quite similar. In some cases, carpal tunnel syndrome may go away on its own. This depends on the cause. For the best results, early treatment is important for both conditions.