Physical Therapy Just as Effective as Surgery for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

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SEBASTIAN KAULITZKI / Getty Images

Hands hurt from long days at work? If your doctor recommends surgery, you may want to get a second opinion. Physical therapy can be just as effective as surgery at relieving the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, suggests new research published in The Journal of Pain. 

In the study, 60 women with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) got surgery and 60 others were treated with manual therapies including desensitization maneuvers. Participants, who had all been dealing with carpal tunnel pain for around three years, were assessed for pain severity and functionality at three-month intervals for a year. Of the 92 percent of women the researchers followed up with at six months and after one year, both groups had experienced similar improvements.

The Spanish researchers were testing their theory that the pain of CTS is caused in part by sensitization of the central nervous system, or changes to the brain and spinal cord that can make people hypersensitive to pain. So in their study, they used a more unusual type of therapy, desensitization maneuvers, in which they manipulated soft tissue in the arms and hands to help “untrap” the median nerve.

ALSO: How to Prevent Carpal Tunnel Syndrome 

Increased pressure on this nerve, a major upper limb nerve called the median nerve, is what causes CTS, a condition that can result in pain, numbness, and weakness in the hand and wrist. So the idea that releasing that pressure could help treat the condition makes sense.

Although the long-term follow-up results were essentially the same, the physical therapy group had significantly less pain and better functionality at one and three months’ time than the group who underwent surgery, and obviously, no post-surgery downtime. The researchers point out that their results support the conservative treatment approach favored by doctors and many patients, 61 percent of whom avoid surgery at all costs, they noted.

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