My Story of Misdiagnosed Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Over a period of six 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 totally limp. That is, it was like a dead extremity on 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. This happened more and 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 the brace, which I wore at night. I didn’t need it during the day, since I rarely had problems with numbness while I was up and around.
Six Years Later a Nerve Conduction Study was Performed
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. The purpose of this test was to measure the speed that the impulses passed through my median nerve in my hands to my brain and back again.
The doctor explained that 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.
Median Nerve Runs Through the Carpal Tunnel
The carpal tunnel is where the median nerve runs through from the hand, through the wrist, and up the arm to the brain.
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 afterwards.
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 to keep my hand on top of this pillow contraption for about a week.
Other than that, I was back to normal immediately and went about my daily routines. Luckily, I am right handed and since it was 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 the numbness quite regularly in the middle of the night. My doctor did tell me that there is a possibility carpal tunnel can reoccur if I continue to irritate my wrist, but I never really knew what I had done to irritate it.
Yes it's true that I 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 I had trouble with!
I May Never Have Had Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
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 can cause radiating symptoms into the shoulder, so he ordered an MRI of my cervical spine in order to do a proper diagnosis. That’s the top of the spine in the neck.
The MRI showed that I had three herniated discs! This is also known as prolapsed or slipped discs.
That might have been caused by years of working at the computer, typing my articles and reading on the screen while leaning forward and bending my head up. Not to mention all the programming I do to maintain my website, or crimping the phone between my neck and my shoulder when I talk to clients.
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 sitting position and sleeping with correctly sized pillows under the 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 to keep it from falling back. No problem. Ironically I already was doing that since I had gotten used to sleeping that way after the carpal tunnel surgery.
Suddenly, A Different Diagnosis
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 added that it’s possible I may never have had carpal tunnel syndrome.
Well, that explains why the numbness started reoccurring.
I asked my doctor why it got better after the surgery if it was my neck coursing 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. This was used to hold my hand up while sleeping. That got me used 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. This kept the nerves in my neck from being squashed by the herniated discs. It probably helped keep the condition from getting worse.
I was told 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.
Be kind to your neck. Every nerve that connects your brain to the rest of your body runs through your neck. Well, you knew that.
The purpose of this article is to share my experience in an effort to explain how symptoms may be misdiagnosed. The information here should not be used to perform your own diagnosis. If you have pain or any related issues, see your doctor.
© 2012 Glenn Stok