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Carpal Tunnel and Diabetic Neuropathy

Are carpal tunnel syndrome and diabetic neuropathy the same thing and does it matter?

Diabetic neuropathy, which is nerve damage often found in those with diabetes, comes as a result of damage to small vessels caused by extended periods of high glucose levels. It is fairly common in diabetics. Consequently, since there is no cure, when the symptoms associated with it appear in the hands and wrists, most people believe there is no alternative other than learning to live with the pain and loss of function. 

But, are those symptoms associated with diabetic neuropathy or do they come from carpal tunnel syndrome? 

Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), like diabetic neuropathy, is also a form of entrapment neuropathy, where the nerve has become trapped or compressed by surrounding tissue. Diabetic neuropathy, specifically the most common form, referred to as peripheral neuropathy, affects the nerves in the hands, arms, feet and legs. Carpal tunnel syndrome refers only to the median nerve. 

Symptoms of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Typically, symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome appear gradually. They may come and go, but, sooner or later, they will get more intense and consistent. The most common of the CTS include:

  • Pain – often intense, generally in the wrist area but also can be felt in the hand and up the arm
  • Numbness – typically felt in the wrist and fingers (with carpal tunnel, only the thumb, first, second and half of the third finger are affected)
  • Burning sensation – there may be a burning sensation, like the numbness, this is usually found in the wrist and fingers
  • Tingling – this may be experienced along the arm, in the wrist or down into the hand and fingers
  • Shock-like sensations – often unsettling, shooting sensations that go up the arm, sometimes described as jolts of electricity 
  • Weakness or clumsiness – fine motor skills and strength in the fingers and wrist are impacted 
  • Symptoms are often worse at night

Why are these conditions so similar?

The pain, numbness, tingling, burning and jolts, as well as weakness and loss of strength and coordination associated with both carpal tunnel syndrome and diabetic peripheral neuropathy are often indistinguishable. 

Diabetes can actually cause carpal tunnel syndrome when the high levels of glucose affect the blood vessels connected to the median nerve. But it gets more complicated than that. Research is showing that individuals with carpal tunnel syndrome who do not have diabetes are more likely to develop diabetes later in life. CTS, in fact, be a predictor of diabetes.

Does the Difference Matter? 

Since the symptoms are the same and both are caused by nerve compression, it may not seem to matter whether the pain in your wrist is from carpal tunnel syndrome or from diabetic neuropathy. There is one very good reason to have an accurate diagnosis: diabetic neuropathy may not have a cure but treatment is available for carpal tunnel syndrome that can relieve symptoms and restore normal functioning. 

If you are experiencing pain and other symptoms in your hand or wrist, it is important to consult with your healthcare professional to determine what exactly is causing it and what steps to take going forward.

If you have questions about carpal tunnel syndrome or any other orthopedic concerns, the physicians and staff of South Island Orthopedics are very experienced in a wide range of orthopedic conditions and are committed to providing personalized care in a state-of-the-art facility. To schedule an appointment, or if you just have questions, please use our convenient online contact form

Posted in: Hand & Wrist