Repetitive stress injuries (RSI) are common, costly and painful. These injuries are responsible for the highest number of days lost among all work related injuries. Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), one of the most well-known types, accounts for over two million visits to physicians’ offices each year and is the most frequent cause for surgery of the hand and wrist. As their names imply, these injuries are caused by constant over-use from a repetitive task, such as typing at a keyboard.

The carpal tunnel is a narrow passageway in the wrist. The median nerve and the tendons that connect the fingers to the muscles of the forearm pass through this tightly spaced tunnel. The median nerve controls sensations to the palm side of the thumb and fingers, as well as impulses to the small muscles in the hand that allow the fingers and thumb to move.

CTS occurs when swelling or irritation of the tendons and ligaments in the carpal tunnel results in pressure on this nerve.  Symptoms, which often first appear during the night, usually start gradually, with frequent pain, burning, tingling, or numbness in the palm of the hand and the fingers, especially the index, middle and ring fingers. As symptoms worsen, people might feel pain, weakness, or numbness in the wrist, radiating up the arm to the shoulder during the day. Decreased grip strength may make it difficult to form a fist, grasp small objects, or perform other manual tasks. If not properly treated, CTS can cause irreversible nerve damage and permanent deterioration of muscle tissue.

Acupuncture can be extremely effective for treating RSI, including carpal tunnel syndrome. In fact, repetitive stress injuries like CTS are one of the most common reasons that people seek acupuncture.  Recent studies suggest that acupuncture may be even more effective than corticosteroids when it comes to treating CTS.

In a randomized, controlled study published in the May 2009 issue of the Clinical Journal of Pain, acupuncture was as effective as corticosteroid prednisone for CTS. The study investigated the efficacy of acupuncture compared with steroid treatment in patients with mild-to-moderate carpal tunnel syndrome as measured by both nerve conduction studies and symptom assessment surveys. One group received eight acupuncture treatments over four weeks, and the other group received daily oral doses of prednisone for four weeks. Results showed that acupuncture was just as effective as the corticosteroid for pain, numbness, tingling and weakness. For the symptoms of nighttime awakening and for motor function, the acupuncture group had better results. Researchers concluded that acupuncture is a safe and effective treatment option for CTS without the side effects of oral steroids and/or for those who do not wish to undergo surgery.

From a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, RSI is seen as a disruption of the flow of Qi and Blood (Xue) within the area and associated with cold, dampness or wind penetrating the muscles and sinews. Acupuncture points, stretching exercises, herbal remedies and nutritional supplements are chosen to specifically treat each condition.

In addition to reducing the swelling, inflammation and pain, acupuncture and herbs can address any headaches, neck pain, shoulder stiffness and sleeping problems that often accompany CTS.

Diane Sheppard is a licensed acupuncturist with a Ph.D. in Oriental Medicine. Dr. Sheppard trained in both China and the U.S and is now a staff practitioner at Eisenhower Wellness Institute. She can be reached at AcQPoint Wellness Center in La Quinta. 760-775-7900

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