Arthritis vs Carpal Tunnel: The Differences Explained

According to researchers at the University of California, San Diego, the sense of touch in your fingertips is sensitive enough to feel the difference between two surfaces that differ by a single layer of molecules.

With such sensitivity, it’s no wonder that hand or finger pain can be particularly excruciating.

Finding relief from that pain starts with finding out what is causing it. Two of the most common causes of hand pain, arthritis vs carpal tunnel, can be particularly difficult to tell apart.

What Is Arthritis?

There are over 100 different types of arthritis, but osteoarthritis is the one most people think of and worry about. Osteoarthritis is a mechanical disorder that is caused by the general wear and tear of using your joints.

As you move your joints, the cartilage that cushions the ends of your bones wears down, which leaves those bones rubbing together. This rubbing is what causes pain for people who suffer from arthritis.

Over time, the pain gets worse, so it is no surprise that so many people seek some form of arthritis pain relief. Because it is caused by overuse, osteoarthritis is more common in older people but can occur at any age.

What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

The carpal tunnel is a narrow passageway on the underside of your wrist. The main nerve to the hand, the median nerve, runs through it, along with the major tendons that control hand movement.

Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when anything irritates or compresses the median nerve. That can be swelling, inflammation, or an injury like a wrist fracture.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is usually the result of repetitive hand motions, like in factory work. While people associate carpal tunnel syndrome with typing, studies actually suggest typing does not cause carpal tunnel, but it may worsen symptoms.

Symptoms of Arthritis vs Carpal Tunnel

Both arthritis and carpal tunnel cause pain in the hand and fingers. In both cases, pain may be worse in the morning or after activity. But there are many other symptoms that set the two apart.

Beyond pain, the main symptoms of arthritis are:

  • Swelling in the wrist, fingers, or knuckles
  • Bony growths near the affected joints
  • Redness and warmth in the affected area.

The main symptoms of carpal tunnel are:

  • Pain and numbness, predominantly in the thumb, index, and middle fingers
  • Pain or numbness that feels better when you change the position of your hand or shake it out
  • Weakness of the hand

Based on the above symptoms, you can differentiate carpal tunnel based on the location of the pain (mostly on the inside fingers of the hand), any feelings of numbness, and if flicking your wrist improves the pain.

Doctors can also diagnose carpal tunnel using the Phalen test. They will ask you to bend your wrists for 60 seconds, and if your pain worsens, that is a good sign you have carpal tunnel syndrome.

Protect Your Hands

Your hands are your point of contact with the world. Without proper dexterity, you cannot perform the basic tasks of your everyday life. Finding out the cause of that pain, arthritis vs carpal tunnel, can help you get your pain in hand.

For more tips on how to maximize your life, browse some of our other blog posts.