Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition that affects the hand, wrist, and arm. It happens when the median nerve gets compressed, or squeezed, at the wrist. The median nerve is a large nerve running from the palm to the upper arm.

The carpal tunnel is a narrow passageway in the palm side of the wrist. It houses the median nerve and flexor tendons, which help you bend your fingers and thumb.

Carpal tunnel syndrome can be very painful and sometimes causes unusual sensations. If left untreated, carpal tunnel syndrome tends to worsen and can lead to permanent damage of the median nerve.

Here, we go over what it feels like to have carpal tunnel syndrome and when it’s time to give your doctor a call.

Sensations of carpal tunnel syndrome usually come on gradually. Most people first notice it at night when they’re trying to sleep. Eventually, it spills into the daytime with growing intensity and persistence.

What does carpal tunnel feel like in your hand?

Symptoms in your fingers and thumb may come and go at first. As the condition worsens, it becomes harder to ignore. Sensations in the hand may include:

  • numbness
  • tingling, feeling “pins and needles”
  • burning
  • pain, intermittent shooting pains
  • cramping
  • morning stiffness
  • feeling like your fingers are swollen, even though they’re not
  • coldness

Symptoms typically show up only on the side of the ring finger closest to the middle finger, but symptoms can also affect other fingers.

What does carpal tunnel feel like in your wrist?

You may feel shooting pain from your fingers and thumb that radiates up through your wrist. You might also experience numbness, tingling, and burning sensations around your wrist.

What does carpal tunnel feel like in your arm?

Carpal tunnel syndrome mostly affects the hand and wrist. However, pain, aches, and other sensations can travel up your arm toward your shoulder. Some people develop burning, shooting pains in the elbow, but they are not as common.

Pain and other unpleasant sensations in the hand, wrist, and arm are the main symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. Other signs that you may have carpal tunnel syndrome are:

  • a strong desire to shake out your wrist for relief
  • noticeable hand weakness and clumsiness
  • difficulty grasping small objects
  • trouble with fine movements like buttoning your shirt or tying your shoelaces
  • trouble with tasks like using a phone or keyboard, or driving
  • difficulty distinguishing the difference between hot and cold by touch
  • lack of awareness of where your hand is in space
  • loss of muscle tissue (muscle atrophy)

People with carpal tunnel syndrome often have poor sleep quality because symptoms may be worse at night.

Other conditions, including different types of nerve compression, can look like carpal tunnel syndrome. Some of these are:

  • Arthritis. Arthritis of the wrist can cause many of the same symptoms. One key difference is that arthritis may cause visible swelling and redness.
  • Cubital tunnel syndrome. Also called ulnar tunnel syndrome, this condition is due to compression, or squeezing, of the ulnar nerve in the elbow. Symptoms are more likely to affect the pinkie, ring finger, and inside of the hand.
  • Pronator syndrome. Pronator syndrome is a condition in which the median nerve in the arm is compressed. Pain is typically felt in the arm but can extend to the palm, making it difficult to make the “OK” sign.
  • Radial tunnel syndrome. Radial tunnel syndrome is due to compression of the radial nerve, which runs from the neck through the arm. It rarely causes the numbness or tingling of carpal tunnel syndrome. Pain is more likely to occur in the forearm or back of the hand.
  • Tendonitis. Tendonitis of the wrist is due to inflammation of the tendons. Unlike carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis may cause swelling, and the pain tends to improve with rest.

Consider making an appointment to see a primary care physician if you have numbness, weakness, or pain of the hand, wrist, or arm that interferes with normal activities or keeps you awake at night.

Early diagnosis and treatment can slow or stop conditions from worsening. A doctor can recommend exercises and home remedies to care for your condition. A doctor can also help you treat it before you develop permanent nerve or muscle damage.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is due to compression of the median nerve. It causes symptoms in the hand, wrist, and arm. These symptoms include shooting pains, numbness, and tingling.

Although symptoms can be mild at first, carpal tunnel syndrome is a progressive condition, which means it gets worse over time. Without treatment, it can lead to permanent nerve and muscle damage.

If you have symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, it’s worth speaking with your doctor. Early diagnosis and treatment can slow or stop your condition from worsening.