Misdiagnosed Carpal Tunnel Caused by Cervical Radiculopathy
For many years, my left hand would occasionally get numb. I even had experiences where I would wake up in the middle of the night to discover that my hand was completely limp. It was like a dead extremity at the end of my arm.
As soon as I moved my body, however, the numbness and feeling of limpness would dissipate. I would quickly be able to move my hand and fingers again. That happened more often as time went by.
I went to a neurologist who recommended a wrist brace. It was available to buy over the counter in a drug store. I rarely had a problem whenever I used it, which I wore at night. I didn’t need it during the day since I rarely had issues with numbness while I was up and around.
Nerve Conduction Study
Six years later, I needed to see a hand specialist for an unrelated injury to one of my fingers. He inquired about any other health issues I might have, so I mentioned the numbness.
He did a nerve conduction study, which involved sending electrical impulses through my nerves. That test measured how fast the impulses passed through my median nerve to my brain and back again.
According to the doctor, the results of that study indicated I had carpal tunnel syndrome in my left hand and that I should have surgery to fix it before it got worse.
Carpal Tunnel and the Median Nerve
The median nerve goes from the hand to the brain by passing through the carpal tunnel in the wrist.
When the ligaments around the wrist are inflamed from stress, they squeeze the carpal tunnel. That pressure disturbs the nerves, causing numbness and pain. I never had pain, but my hand would get numb.
My doctor said that if I didn’t have it fixed, each time my hand got numb, the nerves might die a little, and eventually, they may never recover.
That convinced me, and I had surgery. It involved making a small incision and cutting the ligament that was putting pressure on the carpal tunnel.
The surgery was done as an outpatient procedure in the hospital. But since I was put to sleep, they required that someone drive me home afterward.
Recovery After the Carpal Tunnel Surgery
I was sent home with a huge pillow contraption that I used to prop my hand up while I slept. I had to sleep on my back for a week, with my hand on top of that pillow.
Other than that, I was back to normal immediately and went about my daily routines. Luckily, I am right-handed, and since the surgery was with my left hand, it didn’t interfere with my ability to continue doing everything.
A few weeks later, I had the stitches removed, and everything was fine. It couldn’t have gone any better or have been any easier. The numbness occurred very rarely after the surgery.
However, almost two years later, I started having numbness quite regularly in the middle of the night. My doctor mentioned that carpal tunnel could reoccur if I continue to irritate my wrist, but I never really knew what I had done to aggravate it.
Yes, I indeed type a lot. I use my right hand to control the mouse, which puts pressure on the wrist while holding it in an unusual way. However, it’s my left hand that had the problem!
How Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Can Be Misdiagnosed
Almost two years after the carpal tunnel surgery, something else happened that changed the entire diagnosis!
I injured my shoulder and had pain due to a torn rotator cuff. Not knowing what was causing the pain yet, my doctor sent me to an orthopedist. He explained that nerve compression in the neck could cause radiating symptoms into the shoulder, so he ordered an MRI of my cervical spine to make a proper diagnosis. That’s the top of the spine in the neck.
The MRI showed that I had three herniated discs! That is also known as prolapsed or slipped discs.
That might have been caused by years of working at the computer, reading on the screen while leaning forward, and bending my head up. Not to mention crimping the phone between my neck and my shoulder when I talk to clients.
A Different Diagnosis, Cervical Radiculopathy
When my family doctor read the clinical report of the MRI, he told me that the nerves in my neck that the herniated discs were pressing against might have caused my hand to get numb. He said that it’s possible I may never have had carpal tunnel syndrome.
A herniated disc in the C6 or C7 nerve roots of the cervical spine can pinch the nerves leading to the median nerve that passes through the carpal tunnel. But my hand doctor never examined that.
Well, that explains why the numbness started reoccurring.
I asked my doctor why it got better after the surgery if it was my neck causing the problem. He asked me if I was sleeping differently since then. I slept with a huge pillow that they gave me after the surgery to hold my hand up while sleeping. That got me accustomed to sleeping on my back, and I continued sleeping that way ever since.
Sleeping on my back with my head on a decent pillow, kept my neck in the proper position without putting stress on my cervical spine. That kept the nerves in my neck from being squashed by the herniated discs. It probably helped keep the condition from getting worse.
My doctor said that sleeping that way, with the proper use of the pillow under my head, might eventually allow the discs in my neck to move back into position. I can feel that this is happening since I never have the numbness in my hand when I am kind to my neck.
The Problem With Specialists
If a doctor only considers the problem to be associated with his or her specialty, they may not make a correct diagnosis. Only a comprehensive neurological evaluation will help determine the actual cause of numbness in one's hand.
My hand doctor never considered that my hand numbness might be related to a herniated disc in my cervical spine.
I learned from that experience that one should not trust the opinion of a specialist without having a general doctor review the case. Have all the reports sent to your primary doctor. He or she can analyze the entire situation and recommend other possibilities.
How to Ease Neck Herniated Disc Problems
The problem is that the herniated discs push against the spinal cord, and the pressure can interfere with the nerves running through the spine. Therefore it should be treated to avoid further damage.
Treatment is sometimes as simple as changing behavior. Examples of behavior changes include modifying my sitting position and sleeping with correctly sized pillows under my head.
I needed to raise my office chair (it’s adjustable), and I lowered the monitor, so I don’t look up as I look at the computer screen. That helped correct my sitting posture, so I don't crimp my neck by bending it back.
Maintaining proper posture while sitting or standing is very important to avoid disc compression.
I have always stood erect with a good posture, but working at my computer is another thing altogether. I spent decades working on the computer without giving any thought to my cervical spine.
I also was told to sleep on my back with a pillow under my head. That helps keep my head from falling back.
It’s vital to take care of your neck. Every nerve that connects your brain to the rest of your body runs through your neck, so be kind to it, and your body will feel better.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
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© 2012 Glenn Stok